Stolen guns rarely involved in crimes, officals say

When thieves stole a gun from a Martinez man’s truck earlier this month, it became just another statistic in a state that already ranks high for having the most stolen or lost guns.

The stolen .45-caliber handgun was involved in the Nov. 11 accidental shooting death of 18-year-old Delarrion Smith in Richmond County. Dominique Sullivan, who said he and Smith were playing with the gun, was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Local law enforcement officers say it’s rare that stolen guns turn up at the scene of a crime.

“We do see that on occasion,” said Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Calvin Chew. “It’s not unusual that a gun used in a case turns out to be stolen, but it’s also not all that common.”

Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris said that stolen weapons are almost never involved in a shooting.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, more than 190,000 firearms were stolen nationwide in 2012. Georgia ranked second in the nation, with 12,906 firearms reported lost or stolen. Texas was ranked No. 1 with 18,874.

In Richmond County, 527 firearms have been reported lost or stolen in 2013, compared to 569 in 2012. Investigator Keith McGarity said those numbers include pellet guns and BB guns.

In Columbia County, the number of lost or stolen weapons have dropped by nearly half compared to last year. This year, 95 thefts have been reported, compared to 175 in 2012.

Local law enforcement has taken an active approach in trying to recover stolen firearms in recent years.

Operation Smoke Screen, a seven-month, multiagency undercover burglary operation that the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office revealed in February 2012, resulted in the arrests of 77 suspects and the recovery of 64 firearms.

In August 2009, the sheriff’s office teamed up with the ATF and U.S. Marshal Service in Operation Fox Hunt. During the 19-month operation, an undercover deputy got a job at a south Augusta clothing store to buy guns and drugs from suspects. The operation netted 192 firearms and about $75,000 worth of drugs.

A similar sting in 2006at a fake tattoo parlor collected more than 400 firearms and more than 130 arrests in a 16-month undercover operation.

Chew said stolen firearms can often change hands many times. Which is why authorities say serial numbers are their best friend when it comes to recovering stolen firearms. A serial number allows a firearm to be traced back to a manufacturer, the dealer who sold it and the original purchaser.

“Obviously, if a gun was reported stolen, our job is much easier,” Morris said. “In the recent shooting, the gun owner reported the gun stolen and, fortunately, had a serial number.”

If the gun was purchased secondhand, however, it becomes more difficult for law enforcement to find a direct link between the gun and the offender. Morris said police can still track the firearm to the original owner and work from there.

Not having a serial number increases the difficulty of tracing the weapon. But, Chew said, ballistics tests and fingerprinting can help authorities determine if a particular gun was fired and who pulled the trigger.

Stolen weapons, even those used in violent crimes, will eventually make their way back to the owner when authorities finish with them, Morris said.

“Often times the sheriff’s office will hold the guns until the case is disposed of, but then they are turned right back over to the gun owner,” he said.

The best way to prevent becoming a victim of a gun theft, Chew said, is to store firearms in a secure place, such as a gun safe. Most thefts occur when guns are left in unlocked cars.

“That’s avoidable,” he said.

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