Guns thefts: Guns sold to illegal owners are reported stolen
Good luck trying to find this guy.
Three times since April 2016, a Kansas City man walked into his local police station and reported he had been robbed of a 9 mm handgun — or two.
Once it happened near the corner of 42nd and Indiana, he said. Another time near a south Kansas City night club. The latest in the 18th and Vine district. Five guns in all, gone.
True? Who knows.
"We live in a world of lies," said Sgt. Paul Hamilton of the Kansas City Police Department's illegal firearms squad.
Many self-described victims of gun thefts are not telling the truth, gun violence experts say, and cops and courts seem nearly powerless against the problem.
In such cases, someone who legally acquired a gun passes it on to an illegal gun owner. And then, as an alibi, the legal gun owner reports the gun as stolen just in case it is recovered in a violent crime and traced back to their hands.
Criminals work with illegally gotten guns. Studies show that where guns are recovered in violent crimes, the shooter carries a gun that belongs to someone else 8 out of 10 times.
Just how often supposed theft victims knowingly pass guns to crooks is unknown. The feared trend is part of a booming rise in reported gun thefts in Kansas City. Police tallied 886 reported firearms thefts in 2017, up 50 percent in just two years.
The rise in gun thefts is driven primarily by criminals busting into cars and homes, taking advantage of poorly protected firearms.
But sorting out which victims are real and which are fake is not easy.
"They will tell you a story," Hamilton said.
The Star obtained firearms theft data from the Kansas City Police Department for 2008 through 2017 and sorted it to identify individuals who made multiple gun theft reports.
Next was a search of some of the most-victimized, following trails that generally led in one of two disconcerting directions.
One path chased after ghosts — people without current addresses, often listed at homes now vacant. When doors did open, those who answered had never heard of the name on the theft report.
Or, in the case of the address for a man who had reported six guns stolen since 2008, the woman who answered the door said, "He's in prison."
The second path led to real victims whom criminals targeted for their vulnerability.
At one home, family members who moved a frequent gun-theft victim out of his house earlier this year found guns "all over, in the kitchen ... (and) under his pillow," his grandson said. "No locks or anything."
He believed that predators befriended his grandfather, offering to help the elderly man with work around his house — intent on stealing guns they knew were there.
"If there are multiple thefts, there is some issue," said John Ham, the spokesman for the Kansas City field office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Someone is either passing guns on, or their guns and their means of protecting them are a problem, Ham said.
But arrests and prosecutions are rare.
Police can't take out the middleman, said Philip Cook, a professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. There are elusive networks of people moving guns between legitimate owners and criminals, like the chop shops that used to distribute stolen cars, he said.
In October, Cook moderated a panel discussion at the International Association of Chiefs of Police national conference in Philadelphia — "Stolen Guns and the Role that Theft Plays in Arming Criminals."
He offered up a question to the panel and the chiefs in the audience. "What can you tell me about what you're doing to find the middleman?" he asked.
"I got no response," Cook said.
Ham knows of no recent prosecutions in the Kansas City region targeting anyone suspected of distributing a "stolen" firearm to an illegal gun owner.
"It's hard to build a negative case," he said. "It's hard to disprove what people are saying: 'I thought my gun was in my closet, but a lot of people were here and now it's gone.' I don't believe it, but it's hard to get probable cause."
The pressure on law enforcement begins with the fact that millions of more guns are circulating through the nation. The annual number of background checks for gun purchases now exceeds 27 million a year — double the number of annual background checks just 10 years ago.
Nationwide, cities are struggling to keep guns from flowing into underground markets, said Mark Jones of Chicago, a retired supervisory ATF agent.
"A gun was lost, stolen, misplaced — it is the ubiquitous excuse for straw purchases," he said. "You can see giant holes in our system."
And police have to deal with the heavy violence on the other side.
"It's a different animal right now," Hamilton said about the work facing the Kansas City police illegal firearms squad.
They race against more violence, teaming up in homicide investigations, trying to get to violent criminals and their guns.
Many times they will bust a dangerous felon with an undercover gun sale that will secure the felon in jail while giving homicide detectives time to make a case for murder charges.
"Our focus is on violent crime," Hamilton said. "For straw-purchasing to be a crime, we have to see some kind of transaction. We're in a tough business."
Some of the gun theft victims contacted by The Star have seen all they can stand of the underworld's thirst for guns.
Their names are withheld because they fear being victimized again.
A southeast Kansas City resident who reported six guns lost in three separate burglaries since 2013 has given up, he said.
His property, at the wooded edge of his hilly neighborhood, seems too easy a mark.
"I spent thousands of dollars on guns, and I've got nothing to show for it," he said. "I got rid of them. I've got nothing to do with guns anymore."
He lost four pistols — two 9 mm Glocks, a .22 caliber Berrata and a .45 Ruger — plus two long guns, including an AK-47.
"Where'd they go?" he wondered aloud. "What are they doing with them?"
An east Kansas City man was brutalized for his guns, he told police. Either the same people who had sold him guns or people who knew of the sales returned to steal them.
He was whipped on the head with the blunt end of his own handgun, held at gunpoint while other firearms were stolen.
Another time a friend set him up, he believes, and distracted him while someone else went after guns they knew were there.
No more dealings with street sellers for him, he said.
"I go to the store and buy my own gun," he told The Star. After that, "I stay home, keeping my lights off."