2020 was a turbulent year for gun owners and the firearms industry due to three major events: The emerging COVID-19 pandemic, the George Floyd riots, and the presidential election. The resulting civil unrest led to a spike in gun sales, almost 40 million by year’s end, because Americans wanted weapons to protect themselves and their homes.
How Many Guns?
The exact number of privately owned firearms in the United States is unknown. The federal government is prohibited by the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA) of 1986 from creating a registry or central database of gun owners.
Additionally, few states require registration or licensure as a condition of purchase. The Small Arms Survey, a Swiss research project, provides useful estimates based on manufacturing, governmental, and academic data sets to provide a clearer picture.
In 2018, the Small Arms Survey estimated there were 393 million privately owned firearms in the U.S. — approximately 46% of all firearms held by civilians (excluding law enforcement) in the world. That equated to 120 firearms for every 100 individuals in the country.
Criminals and Stolen Firearms
In Firearm Use by Offenders, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 9.9% of state prison inmates who had used or possessed a firearm at the time of their current offense obtained the gun as a result of burglary, robbery, or another type of theft.
However, a further 29.2% of inmates had obtained their firearms from drug dealers, off the street, or on the black market. As many black market sources also acquire their firearms through theft and robbery, this is a major source of weapons to criminals.
Sources of Stolen Firearms
The two primary sources of stolen guns are federal firearms licensees (e.g., gun and sporting goods stores) and individual gun owners.
Theft from FFLs
An FFL is required, by law, to report firearms lost or stolen from inventory to both the ATF and local law enforcement within 48 hours of the discovery. As a result, there’s a tally of the number of guns criminals steal from gun stores or that businesses misplace every year.
In the ATF’s Federal Firearms Licensee Theft/Loss Report for 2020, FFLs reported a total of 13,173 firearms as lost or stolen. The number was 12,815 in 2019, reflecting an increase of 2.79%. Burglary offenses and loss both accounted for more than 5,900 missing weapons in 2020, including everything from pistols to machine guns.
Types and Quantities of Guns Stolen from FFLs
In the Theft/Loss Report for 2020, the ATF breaks down theft and loss according to firearm type. Handguns — including semi-automatic pistols, revolvers, and derringers — accounted for more than 8,000 lost or stolen weapons.
Machine Guns: 30
Unknown Types: 29
Combination Guns: 8
Destructive Devices: 5
Any Other Weapons: 3
Tear Gas Launcher: 1
States with the Most FFL Reports
Florida federal firearms licensees reported the most lost or stolen firearms (1,214), followed by Louisiana (1,212), Texas (1,158), and Tennessee (1,064). In Louisiana, most of the reports were for loss (914). In Texas, by comparison, burglary accounted for more filings than any other single category (563).
Theft from Other Sources
The United States Postal Service can ship rifles and shotguns but doesn’t transport handguns. However, UPS and other private courier services, such as FedEx, will transport all types of firearms by ground. As a result, criminals sometimes target UPS trucks to steal firearms. On other occasions, criminals have stolen firearms from UPS facilities. But guns stolen from UPS don’t account for most losses due to theft.
Theft from Individuals
There is no federal requirement to report firearms stolen during burglaries or other property crimes to the police. As a result, estimating the number of firearms stolen annually in the U.S. from individuals and other businesses is more difficult. In 2020, for example, individual gun owners in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reported 1,249 stolen or lost firearms, an increase of 240 from the previous year (1,009).
In 2012, non-licensees and private citizens reported 173,675 firearms lost or stolen to the ATF. In a 2017 study, however, the researchers estimated the number to be as high as 380,000 firearms stolen in 250,000 separate incidents.
There are also concerns regarding the theft of firearms left unattended in vehicles. If you keep a handgun or other firearm in your vehicle, consider securing it and keeping it out of sight.
How to Check if a Gun is Stolen
Unfortunately, at this time, there is no publicly searchable federal online database of lost or stolen firearms. Some states have their own databases, but these are limited.
When you purchase your firearm from a private seller, you should have a bill of sale or receipt to prove you acquired the firearm from another person. If the weapon is stolen, thorough record-keeping practices can ensure you are not held liable. However, be prepared to have your gun seized if it is stolen.
If you suspect that the firearm you’ve purchased may be stolen, notify your local police. They may contact the ATF to trace the weapon’s serial number.
How to Report a Gun Stolen
If your firearm is stolen, you need to report it to the authorities. To report the theft, you’ll need to take the following steps before and after the theft:
Keep accurate records
When you purchase a firearm, whether from a gun store or a private seller, you should document the manufacturer (make), model, serial number, caliber, and any other identifying characteristics (e.g., finish wear). That way, if your firearm is stolen, you can provide a detailed description to the authorities when you report the theft.
Don’t wait to report a stolen gun. As soon as you know your firearm has been stolen or lost, contact the police to report the theft. The longer you wait, the less likely the police will recover your property.
Contact law enforcement for updates
Police officers don’t always enter the information that you provide correctly. Even when they do, records aren’t always updated. It’s advisable to contact your local law enforcement agency periodically to request updates regarding the status of your missing firearms.
How to Protect Your Firearms
To prevent the theft of your firearms, consider investing in a high-quality gun safe. While many gun owners prefer keeping their firearms accessible for self-defense, leaving guns unattended when your home is vacant is risky if a burglary occurs.
Consider carrying your handgun at home with the right holster.
Protect Your Firearms Inside and Outside Your Home
Disarmament is another way criminals can acquire firearms illegally; therefore, it’s essential to keep your weapon safe and secure. That means carrying your gun in a high-quality holster.
At We The People Holsters, our passive retention holsters provide a high degree of security, ensuring your firearm remains by your side until you choose to draw it.