It is “ghost data” that wanders between the right to privacy and the right to bear arms. In any case, lack of data leads to inaction and, as a result, stolen guns end up in the hands of criminals.
Florida state law does not require a registry of firearm ownership, nor do authorities keep track of guns lost and stolen from its citizens, creating a gap in criminal studies and investigations amid widespread violence sweeping in through the nation.
Florida local police have their own records, but they are not required to share them either. Therefore, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the Governor’s Office have no idea of the exact or estimated number of missing guns circulating in the city.
Should Florida Governor Ron DeSantis want to know right now how many missing guns there are in the state, his officials would have to contact local law enforcement in each city and county to provide data collected within their jurisdictions. It might take days.
In 2007 – 2017, at least 82,000 guns were reported stolen and never found, according to a Tampa Bay Times enquiry.
In the past three years, six of Florida’s most populous counties – Miami Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Duval, Hillsborough, and Pinellas – racked up more than 7,500 guns reported stolen, according to sheriff’s office data compiled by the Itempnews Project.
An enquiry undertaken by the Itempnews Project last May 2022 into the volume of stolen and lost firearms from the nation’s gun stores, especially in Florida, found that FDLE had no unified records of lost guns, either by type, location, or cause.
The Governor's Office had no knowledge either.
It is ghost data that wanders between the right to privacy and the right to bear arms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
The FBI recorded 1.2 million lost and stolen guns between 2017 and 2021.
Nicole Porter Stewart, a specialist with the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division, explained that the agency did not have details on missing guns by state and that this data should be provided by law enforcement departments.
Florida did not have them.
The unwillingness of local lawmakers and Florida's state government to regulate data collection plays a key role in this information vacuum, critics warn.
The Law Enforcement Department also does not collect information on crimes committed with stolen firearms.
The reports only indicate the type of weapon used in homicides and reported crimes, Itempnews found.
The only key data regarding stolen guns shown in the Florida Unified Crime Report (UCR) is the "reported (monetary) value of stolen property" which includes firearms.
In 2010 - 2020 some $111 million worth of Florida's privately owned firearms were stolen and only 15% of the total were recovered.
This accounts for approximately 222,000 guns in a decade, according to Itempnews' calculations of the average prices of a conventional firearm.
"This monetary total is for all reported stolen firearms, statewide, for the specific reporting period," said Jeremy Burns, a spokesperson for FDLE.
Thus, Florida, the third most populous state in the country, with 21 million people, and hundreds of thousands of firearms on the streets, is blind-sided with regard to its lost guns. As a matter of fact, gun owners have no obligation to report to police the events of firearm theft.
This is not an exceptional situation in Florida, for that matter. The fact is that there is no federal requirement in this regard.
The law requires federal firearms licensees to report each missing, lost, or stolen firearm from inventory or collection to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) within 48 hours of discovery.
In addition, they should report the event to the appropriate local law enforcement agency.
A Rand Corporation study estimates that 35.3% of adults in Florida live in homes with guns, some 518,000 licensed, the second state with the largest number of records in the USA. Texas is in the first place.
The efforts by legislators at the Congress to reverse this reality have borne no fruit, due to opposition from the Republican Party.
Only eleven states and the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) require gun owners to report the loss or theft of any firearm to law enforcement, according to the Giffords Center, a gun-control group.
A twelfth state, Maryland, requires individuals to report lost or stolen handguns and assault weapons, but not other firearms. Michigan requires owners to report firearm thefts, but not losses.
New Jersey adopted a law imposing civil liability for acts perpetrated with stolen firearms, according to the Giffords Center. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has run the watch group since 2013. Incidentally, she was nearly killed in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona.
At this point, the information might be irrelevant except for the fact that the Sunshine State has one of the largest registries of gun owners in the United States.
In addition, it is among the states with the highest number of firearms stolen from gun stores and with some of the highest rates of guns lost and stolen from its citizens in recent years.
Crime has rebounded and between 2015 and 2020 the number of murders rose 20%.
Silence from Tallahassee
Worried as they are, gun control advocacy groups and law enforcement experts warn that the lack of measures not only fuels the illegal arms market but also promotes a culture of apathy and carelessness in something as delicate as the safeguarding of weapons.
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Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for Governor DeSantis, said that "local law enforcement agencies can always work together to share information pertinent to solving a case, but no records of firearm ownership are kept at any level."
"At the state level, a firearm ownership registry is not required, as there is a balancing interest of the right to privacy that Floridians have to exercise their second amendment rights (on the right to bear arms)," he added.
Griffin did not answer whether Governor DeSantis has plans to obtain information on stolen and lost guns or to promote the reporting of lost or stolen firearms.
There is no hint of that in DeSantis' recent statements.
" Yes, it would be wonderful, and significant in so many important ways, to have all of this information, for knowledge is power. But to what end?” wondered H. Scott Fingerhut, a law professor at Florida International University.
"To make people safer? And what does that mean? More guns, fewer guns? What of ammunition? What about violent entertainment? ", the academic added.
A study by Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York-based gun control group, found that mandatory-reporting laws for lost and stolen guns were associated with a 30 percent lower risk that guns would be purchased in that state and recovered after a crime in another state.
Republican-controlled legislatures in many of the nation’s states have been opposed for years to passing new gun control regulations.
Experts say a local law to encourage gun owners to report losses would do nothing to affect the right to bear arms.
In fact, the two Republican senators from Florida voted against the bipartisan gun bill passed on June 25, aimed at preventing dangerous people from accessing firearms and increasing investments in the nation's mental health system.
Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio argued that the bill does not meet the standards of the constitutional right to bear arms and that the cost to implement it is excessive.
November in sight, 2024 on the corner
What lies ahead is much more complex in the run-up to the midterm elections in November. With the Democrats betting on the majority in both houses, any debate and passage of gun control initiatives would be rather difficult.
In anguished soul-searching about gun culture after three deadly mass shootings in California, New York, and Texas, in less than one month, polls show that Americans are more open to gun control measures.
Florida is no stranger to this national pulse.
A poll conducted by Giffords and Public Policy Polling found that 85 percent of state residents support background checks on all gun sales and that a majority of Florida voters believe gun laws should be strengthened.
In the past three years, however, the Sunshine State has faced an unrelenting pro-gun lobby to remove the meager controls imposed after a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018.
In Florida, the so-called red flag law raised the age to purchase long guns from 18 to 21, added a three-day waiting period for verification, created a program to allow trained school personnel to carry guns, and invested $400 million in mental health and school safety.
“Before I am done as governor, we will have a signature on" what supporters call a "constitutional carry" bill that would allow residents to carry concealed guns without needing licenses.
Whether or not the governor will keep his promise, the Republican majority in the Florida legislature can push the bill through.
The question mark is the inclination DeSantis will take in the coming months on an issue of national interest such as gun control - from a local Florida perspective - to push a media agenda with presidential aspirations for 2024.
Edited by Conchita Delgado
One version of this article referred to Jacksonville as a county, but it is a city in Duval County, Florida.