Thieves in South Carolina are doing their holiday shopping and guns are at the top of their list.
The state remains one of the nation’s top illegal exporters of guns, federal authorities say, and many travel the “Iron Pipeline” of Interstate 95 to the Northeast, where stolen guns sell on the streets to criminals for three to four times their value.
Even South Carolina law enforcement agencies have been hit.
Spokesmen for the state Department of Public Safety, the state Department of Corrections and the State Law Enforcement Division told The Greenville News they have had firearms stolen from their agencies during the past three years.
“You will find guys who are doing firearms trafficking, or knuckleheads who come down here from other places and acquire guns and steal guns and take them back up North and dispose of them there because you have places like New York, New Jersey and D.C. where the laws are restrictive,” said Gerod King, an agent and spokesman with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Charlotte.
King said crooks use South Carolina as a source state for weapons because gun laws are more restrictive in other states.
For 2012, the latest year for which federal data is available, 5,718 guns were reported stolen in South Carolina, the 11th highest total in the nation.
A 2010 report by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that South Carolina ranked sixth in the nation in the number of guns used in crimes in other states. The rate is based on the number of guns per 100,000 residents in the originating state. Other Southern states also ranked high in the study, including Mississippi (first), Alabama (fifth) and Georgia (10th).
The state Department of Public Safety, which houses the Highway Patrol, had five handguns stolen and one shotgun with ammunition since 2012, according to a spokesman. The shotgun and ammo, stolen in July, have since been recovered, according to the agency.
Thom Berry, a SLED spokesman, said two handguns belonging to SLED personnel were taken in 2013, one from a home break-in and another from a vehicle break-in.
The prisons agency during the past four years has had one weapon lost or stolen that sparked a SLED inquiry, according to Stephanie Givens, a spokeswoman for the agency. She said the probe did not turn up the weapon.
Johnathan Bragg, a spokesman for the Greenville Police Department, said the theft of guns “is a lot more common than people think.”
“People will leave the cars unlocked and leave their guns in their consoles or leave them in their trunks or something like that,” he said. “We typically don’t see them recovered as much unless they are used in a crime.”
King said handguns of any type are prized by thieves.
“They are the weapon of choice by street gangs and hoodlums because they can conceal them,” he said.
And while some thieves will keep guns they find in burglaries for their own protection, King said others will become traffickers and take them to other states because the profit margin is so high.
Some of them are acquired through legal means, he said, using “straw purchases” in which a friend or relative of a trafficker will buy guns at a gun show, a flea market or from a licensed dealer so the trafficker’s name is not on any paperwork, in some cases because the trafficker has been convicted of a felony, which would prevent him from buying a gun.
A true indicator of firearm trafficking, King said, is what agents call a “short time to crime” — less than three months between the time a gun was originally purchased in a state and then surfaces in a crime in another state.
South Carolina’s average time to crime is nine years, compared to 11 years for the national average, according to the ATF.
While guns are moved out of state, law enforcement say some are reused in South Carolina crimes as well. Out of 4,307 weapons recovered in the state in 2013, according to the ATF, 2,348 came from South Carolina.
Stolen guns from the state sometimes surface in shootings. Among such crimes:
• A 2008 shooting in Clinton in which the gun was traced to a gun store burglary that year.
• A gun used by a man in 2010 in which he opened fire in an AT&T store in New York was stolen from a Lake City, S.C. automobile burglary, according to investigators. The man shot one employee who survived, and the shooter was killed by an off-duty officer.
• A 40-caliber Glock used in a drive-by shooting in 2010 in Jonesville was stolen from a Union police officer the day before, according to investigators.
• A gun used in the shooting of a Varnville man earlier this year was stolen from Barnwell County the month before, authorities said.
• The handgun used in the 2013 Columbia shooting that severed the spinal cord of an 18-year-old University of South Carolina student was stolen, according to police.
King said he knows someone whose wife one day forgot to set the home burglar alarm and thieves broke into the house and stole a gun. It turned up two weeks later in the hands of some Charlotte criminals.
“They will make it into the criminal element,” he said of stolen guns. “That’s one of the things of value they look for when they break into a home. A gun is always going to be a thing of value.”
Electronics may be obsolete when a thief attempts to pawn them, but a gun will always hold its value, he said.
Guns are considered tools of the trade for some criminals, King said, so once they are stolen criminals may keep them instead of trying to sell them.
“They will hold onto them until they steal one in a break-in or acquire one that is better and then they’ll dispose of it, but they don’t ever want to be caught without a tool,” he said.
King said many times thieves are not breaking into homes or cars just to find guns, “but they do know the places to look.” He said common spots include a nightstand, under a pillow or mattress.
“If they find them, it’s kind of like winning a mini-lottery,” he said. “‘Hey, we’re going to get paid now because we did get a gun or two.’”
Because thieves are opportunists, law enforcement officers say they look for what they can find right away. Locking guns away in a safe or another locked storage compartment will cost thieves time they don’t want to spend.
King said many gun owners keep their guns inside the cabin of the vehicle, which he said is a mistake because thieves know where to look.
He suggested if gun owners have to store guns in a vehicle to leave them in the trunk or a truck’s locked storage container.
He said a construction worker went into a Charlotte-area mall for lunch and placed his gun in the console. Thieves broke into several cars, including his, and took the gun, which later wound up in the hands of a criminal.
Bragg advised gun owners not to leave guns in vehicles, even if they are locked.
“You always run the risk of your car being broken into, especially in the holiday season,” he said. “There are people out looking for any spare change. They are looking for presents. They know most people will put them in the trunks. If your gun happens to be in there as well, it’s just going to be an extra bonus.”
Bragg said gun owners should keep their guns in wall-mounted safes in their homes, in part to protect access from children, or any type of safe “so it’s not convenient to haul out of there.”
“Most people who commit a residential burglary want to get in and out as quick as possible,” he said. “So just keep them so they are not easily accessible and not easy to find.”