Over 162,000 Guns Missing From US Stores in the Last Decade

Inventory losses were more frequent than all reported thefts (burglaries, robberies, and larcenies). Government officials are cracking down on the diversion of guns that usually feed the illicit market. Southern states account for two-thirds of all gun thefts.

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When the police in Cape Coral, Florida, responded at 3:00 a.m., to a report on a burglary in progress at a gun store, they found as the suspects two brothers, aged 11 and 14. 

After achieving their goal, they hurried to flee. The 11-year-old boy was captured on the spot. The 14-year-old boy, who had a history of criminal conduct, was caught on the run, after throwing a rifle down a sewer grate. It was part of the loot. 

Had the police not arrived in time in the early hours of June 8, 2022,  two minors with a history of violence could have had in their possession 21 firearms, an AR assault rifle, accessories, and dozens of rounds of ammunition.

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The incident, in addition to posing a threat to the community, would have been added to the list of more than 8,400 missing guns in Florida reported by dealers in the last decade, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Key goals

Gun shops have always been a key target because the owners keep large caches of weapons and ammunition, and at night the showcases are filled with all kinds of merchandise.

Over the past three years, data show, thefts and losses have declined at gun retailers as part of the joint efforts of the federal government and dealers to curb illegal access. However, volumes and variety do have an impact. 

In 2011-2021, the owners of federal firearm licenses (FFLs) reported some 162,795 firearms as stolen or lost.

A small amount was finally found, according to an ATF report released in May 2022; this means that in 2016-2020 only 2.6% of the total number of missing firearms were recovered. 

Handguns, rifles, receivers/frames (gun parts), and shotguns, are mostly stolen in U.S. stores. 

However, the aggregate amount is far away from the number of missing guns annually reported by private owners to law enforcement agencies, one of the many causes of nationwide gun violence.

In 2017-2021, 1.2 million guns were recorded as lost and stolen in the FBI's National Crime Information Center, eight times the decade-long total number reported by dealers as missing.

The Itempnews Project reviewed dozens of reports from the Department of Justice, the ATF, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and law enforcement agencies from ten U.S. states to understand the role played by gun dealers in gun violence.

While dealers report more losses than thefts of guns from their stock, the opposite is true for private owners.

In 2021, 17,264 guns were recorded as lost in the FBI database, compared with about 226,262 counted as stolen.

According to data retrieved by Itempnews from the ATF, the law enforcement agency of domestic laws and regulations concerning firearms, the number of robberies reported by dealers was much higher in southern states.

Over the past five years, southern states have ranked top in the national list, with slight variations from one state to another. 

It is a fact consistent with the reality of a region historically marked by income inequality, profound segregation, and high property crime rates in the nation. 

Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have been leading the way since 2016 in gun theft from businesses, data reveal.

In fact, the former two states hold the highest number of registered firearms in the United States. For their part, the rest of these states stand out for their high firearm death rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Florida has long been among those states most reluctant to curtail gun ownership (and usage, for that matter),” recalled H. Scott Fingerhut, a law professor at Florida International University. 

"Combine that with an ever-expanding poverty gap -- the glaring disparity between haves and have-nots -- significant population growth and a climate warm enough be outdoors all year long, and there's a large part of answers: More people, more guns, more desperation, more problems," said Fingerhut, a prominent criminal defense attorney who is a former president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

A study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that, of the four major U.S. regions, the South accounted for 37% of households, 44% of property crimes, but 2/3 (66%)of gun theft incidents.

"The Southern region has the highest percentage of households with firearms and the least safe storage practices," the authors wrote in 2017.  

"Not surprisingly, most Southern states are “exporters” of guns traced in crime," they wrote.


In 2020, the most recent year for which data are available, 45,222 people died from firearm-related wounds in the United States, according to the CDC.

In 2020, states with the highest rates of gun-related deaths (that is, murders, suicides, and all other categories tracked by CDC) included Mississippi (28.6 per 100,000 persons), Louisiana (26.3), Wyoming (25.9), Missouri (23.9), and Alabama (23.6). 

With three mass shootings in different states in 10 days, the issue of gun violence in the nation is top in the domestic politics agenda, and every detail surrounding this crisis is key.

Years of efforts toward gun restrictions have failed amid Republican opposition and the influential National Rifle Association (NRA)-led lobby.

This time, however, Congress and the Senate have reached a bipartisan agreement on certain security steps to restrict the access to guns, possibly resulting in the first legislation of its kind since 1994.

Steps and more steps

Gun dealers are trying to secure their stashes as federal regulations become increasingly stringent in view that more illegal weapons are finding their way into criminal hands.

At the federal level, there is no list with data on crimes committed with stolen firearms or accounts of stolen firearms. However, investigators have spotted a rising rate of killings with the little help of stolen weapons.

"We know that individuals that steal a van or truck and drive it through a storefront or the side of a cinder block building aren’t stealing firearms to put food on the table for their families," said Mark Oliva, spokesman for the Firearms Industry Trade Association (NSSF).

Oliva explained that the Association works with the ATF to help firearms retailers voluntarily improve the security of their stores to deter and prevent robberies and thefts.

Under the name "Operation Safe Store," firearms industry consultants, along with ATF officials, educate firearms retailers on affordable options for store security.

These options include everything, from adjusting layout to preventing forced entry to physical barriers and upgraded alarms and security monitoring systems, Oliva added.

In 2020 there were more than 59,000 licensed gun dealers nationwide, but in 2021 just 1,254 firearms reported as lost or stolen belonged to 10 dealers

"I think this whole issue of stolen guns, of stolen stores, is just an excuse to limit our constitutional right to be armed, to defend ourselves. No one here questions that," said a gun dealer, who asked not to reveal his identity, during a gun show in Miami last May.

Florida will have 20 gun shows in 2022, one of the largest in the entire country (Photo/Itempnews)

Somehow, the efforts undertaken by retailers appear to be paying off in the reduction of thefts and losses in their stores, data reveal.

A report released last May by the ATF showed that the number of events has remained unchanged over the past five years. Moreover, in 2017-2021 the number of guns reported as missing fell by 57%.

Nonetheless, in the opinion of the groups lobbying for arms control, gun dealers should be imposed additional legal responsibilities.

"Lawmakers can ensure that licensing laws include strong enforcement mechanisms and penalties targeted at repeat offenders," recommended Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York-based gun control group, in a report.  

There are around 400 million guns in the United States, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the nonpartisan Small Arms Survey (Photo/Canva)

The law requires federal firearms licensees to report each missing, lost, or stolen firearm from inventory or collection to ATF within 48 hours of discovery.

In addition, they should report the event to the appropriate local law enforcement agency.

For researchers, stopping firearms theft on their way to criminals is increasingly urgent.

Gun theft from cars hit a record high in 2019 and 2020, together with gun sales, killings, and the speed of crime-gun recoveries, research from Everytown for Gun Safety showed.

In the minds of many gun control advocates, as in the minds of those who oppose it, the cause and solution to so many gun deaths or mass shootings involves radically opposed solutions from every point of view, which for years has stalled the debate.

At a time when the United States is stuck on ascertaining its salient problems – inflation, gun violence, or democracy – consensus reached at Capitol Hill on minimum regulations on gun ownership is just “surprising,” according to experts.

The case of the two minor brothers in Florida who tried to steal guns from a convenience store in the wee hours shows how complex is the gun violence epidemic sweeping the country. 

In fact, on that same June 8, there were 118 gun-related incidents nationwide. Most of them claimed a toll of wounded and killed people, according to data compiled by Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization that tracks incidents of gun violence across the country.

As regards Florida, which has experienced two mass shootings with dozens of victims in the past decade, this is a matter of concern as murder figures have been on the rise since 2016. Even in 2020, during the pandemic, the highest rate in the last 20 years was recorded in this state.    

Edited by Conchita Delgado.

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