As inconspicuously as he could, Eric Neely slipped his 9mm Glock 43 semiautomatic pistol out of his concealed waistband holster and into a backpack.
He and his girlfriend were in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot. He had tickets to the Chiefs game against the Saints last October, and the Nebraskan needed to stow the gun in his SUV before passing through the stadium’s metal detectors.
But the gun and the backpack were gone when they returned hours later.
His loss was just one in what has been an unprecedented and alarming rash of gun thefts citywide in Kansas City since 2016, according to electronic police records obtained by The Star.
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The number of annual firearms thefts rose from 496 to 588 between 2008 and 2015, but it exploded in 2016. Thieves stole 804 a year ago — a 37 percent increase. And they are on pace to steal some 830 firearms in 2017.
Neely learned his lesson, he said. He now has a steel lockbox with a steel cable in his SUV.
But too many gun owners are only making it easy for criminals to propel Kansas City’s harrowing gun violence.
Too many are stowing their guns carelessly in cars, not securing them in locked boxes, and failing to record serial numbers to help law enforcement if they are stolen.
“It comes down to personal responsibility,” said Mark Jones of Chicago, a retired supervisory special agent in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
“All guns start life as a legal commodity,” he said. But when gun owners fail to protect their weapons, criminals take them “into the underground market.”
Gun thieves know there are eager buyers for illegal guns who, because they can’t get them legally, will readily pay a hefty cash price on the street, said Don Pind, a Kansas City firearms training consultant.
“You can get $300 for anything that goes bang,” he said.
The repercussions run deep. A 2016 study by the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health determined that in violent crimes where guns were recovered, the perpetrator carried a gun owned by someone else 8 out of 10 times.
“Those guns stay on the streets,” Kansas City Police Department spokeswoman Capt. Stacey Graves said. “They bring violence on our community.”
At some point police may recover a stolen gun, but by then odds are “it has changed hands many times” and been involved in multiple crimes.
“The sad part,” said Johnson County resident Kim Berry, “is they get out on the street and get used in killing people senselessly.”
Berry’s son and a friend had two guns busted out of their car in a parking lot in Westport in March, 2016 — two Glocks, both .40 caliber semiautomatic pistols.
They suspect that other people with them that night knew the guns were there and doubled back to break into the car and steal them.
“They probably sold them, and then they probably sold them,” she said.
Arrowhead Stadium and the Westport parking lots were just two of several locations that had multiple reports of gun thefts at or near them since 2008.
Thieves will prey on car lots where they suspect there are likely to be gun owners, or in lots such as Arrowhead Stadium or nightclubs — locations where metal detector security doesn’t allow guns inside, so people leave them in their cars.
By far, the location with the most reported thefts since 2008 was the lots surrounding the KCI Expo Center, which often features gun shows, with thieves plundering the lots for 25 thefts — more than half of them since 2016 — often stealing several guns in one break-in.
Other hot spots included Walmart on U.S. 40 in east Kansas City, the Barrywoods Crossing area in Kansas City, North; the Winnwood Skate Center; and the Ameristar Casino.
Numerous thefts were reported near night clubs as well, including KC Mingles in south Kansas City, BLVD Nights on Southwest Boulevard, the former Mac’s Jazz and Blues Club on Blue Ridge Boulevard and the now-closed Rookies Sports Lounge in south Kansas City.
Kansas City police work with property owners and event planners to encourage better lighting and more security and surveillance of lots, Graves said. They increase patrols around gun shows. They help patrol the Arrowhead parking lot, she said, but officers are also dealing with “people issues” among the tailgaters.
Club owners like Charlie Johnson, who manages the KC Mingles nightclub, say they hire off-duty Kansas City police to patrol their parking lots. But many customers are parking out on the streets, and that’s where he thinks they are most vulnerable.
“I think there’s a ring (of gun thieves) going around,” he said. “And more people are carrying guns.”
With so many guns out there, thieves don’t even have to be certain there is a gun inside before breaking in. Gun owners’ practice of leaving firearms “hidden” in their cars is a dangerous gamble.
“If you break into three cars, you’ll probably get guns out of two of them,” Johnson said.
Weapons of choice
Roughly one-third of the guns reported stolen are 9mm handguns. Some 28 percent of the guns are .40 to .45 caliber. More than half of all stolen firearms are semiautomatic weapons.
While these weapons may efficiently carry out the tasks criminals undertake, they also simply reflect what are the most common firearms among all gun owners, gun shop managers say.
Thieves are simply taking the opportunities that gun owners give them — and police departments and law enforcement are struggling to track them and the illegal guns down.
The growth in stolen guns follows an “increase in vicious gang activity,” said Kevin Jamison, an attorney and the president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance.
Kansas City has recorded 113 homicides this year as of Oct. 12, already far beyond the year-end total of 94 in 2016, police records show. Firearms were used in 97 of the killings.
Jamison frequently represents clients in court cases involving guns. It gives him a look at the history of many confiscated guns.
“As far as I can tell, there isn’t a kingpin for illegal guns,” Jamison said. “You have drug addicts looking for anything valuable they can sell for cash.”
When he asks clients in firearms-related cases where they got the guns, Jamison said, most often the answer is: “From some dude.”
The whole gun underground is a maddening mystery, said Jones, the retired ATF special agent. Many people — because of criminal records or associations — don’t contact police when their guns are stolen, he said. And many stolen gun reports are “spurious” because in some cases people buy guns for criminals and then report them as stolen to insulate themselves from any crimes that follow.
“Nobody is really sure how many are stolen,” he said. “All you can do is guess.”
But there are many measures that show gun thefts are spiking, Jones said, including an increase in the robberies of gun shops that are recorded with the ATF. Even federal agents and law enforcement officers are reporting more of their personal and agency-issued firearms as stolen.
The spike in gun thefts reflects an overall spike in interest in guns. Kansas and Missouri stand out with many states that have made it easier for people to conceal-carry and openly carry firearms. FBI records show that gun sales are booming nationwide.
The FBI ran 27.5 million background checks on people wanting to purchase guns in 2016, a record number that was 18.9 percent higher than the previous record of 23.1 million in 2015.
This year, through September, the FBI is on pace to perform another 24.3 million background checks.
Westport businesses have seen the evidence of Kansas City’s rising rate of gun thefts, said Kim Kimbrough, executive director of the Westport Regional Business League.
“A sizable number of guns we take off of folks are stolen,” he said.
The concern goes beyond venues like the KCI Expo Center, its gun shows, and the surrounding airport hotels, said Michael B. Rose, general manager of the Expo Center and the Holiday Inn Express and Suites at the airport.
Car break-ins overall are a problem and hotel managers throughout the area and on both sides of the state line are talking about it seemingly weekly, he said.
“We talk about it all the time,” he said. “We’re putting up more cameras and gate systems. That all costs money, but we’re doing it to make people feel safe so they keep coming back.”
‘Keep honking, I’m reloading’
Like the police, business owners also urge gun owners to take measures to protect themselves and their firearms.
Gun owners also should maintain a complete record of their guns, including their serial numbers. The ATF provides a template for a personal firearms record at ATF.gov.
Pind, the Kansas City firearms training consultant, suggests gun owners may want to think twice about having a National Rifle Association sticker on their window, or any other indicator that their vehicle belongs to a gun owner.
“I know people like to advertise their gun shop … or they’ve got a bumper sticker that says, ‘Keep honking, I’m reloading,’ ” he said. “But it tells people you’re into firearms.”
He also cautions against wearing your pistol in a visible side holster — which is becoming more common as people sometimes do to express their support of the right to carry firearms.
Someone who’s looking to steal a gun can see it, and having a holstered gun doesn’t help when a thief from behind suddenly has a gun to the back of your head.
“You’re not going to outdraw him,” Pind said.
People should avoid leaving unsecured firearms in vehicles and make sure that any valuables left in a car are completely out of view, police said.
Extra precautions are necessary in parking areas where thieves may think there is an increased likelihood of finding guns — such as at gun shows or outside sporting and entertainment events where no firearms are allowed inside.
Berry, whose son had a gun taken from his car in Westport, said the best protection may be to make choices that allow you to leave guns behind.
“If you think you need a gun, your best choice is not to go,” she said. “Bullets have no name. It’s the innocent person who pays.”