New Study Highlights the Flaws With 'Lost or Stolen' Laws

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When I saw that the National Police Institute's new study on the effectiveness of "lost or stolen" gun reporting laws was funded by the anti-gun Joyce Foundation, I admit that I rolled my eyes. Even before I started reading the report, I assumed the authors would be fully supportive of the laws, which require crime victims to report the theft or loss of a firearm within a certain period of time or risk criminal charges themselves. And sure enough, the very first recommendation the authors make is "States and other local governments that have no mandatory reporting law or ordinance for lost and stolen firearms should consider establishing a requirement for prompt reporting of lost or stolen firearms to local law enforcement agencies."

What did surprise me, however, is that despite that recommendation much of the study points in a different direction. When the authors interviewed more than a dozen current and former law enforcement officials, for instance, they found little support and a great deal of skepticism for "lost or stolen" laws. 

During the focus group, NPI asked about participants’ views on the usefulness of mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms. Participant responses at times seemed more focused on gun policies and gun control, problems law enforcement and political leaders should be addressing (e.g., rising juvenile crime and violence), and the small number of stolen firearms being recovered. When prompted about whether mandatory reporting might deter straw purchasers, for example, participants expressed doubt about how effective they could be in deterring criminals. One participant described the laws as “feel-good legislation.” Importantly, more than one participant echoed the concerns of some state legislators’ commentary about the laws penalizing those who are victims of gun theft or loss who may not report or report within the timeframe required by the law (if any).

Did they find any cop who actually believed these laws were valuable tools for them to use? It doesn't sound like it. The very folks who are tasked with enforcing "lost or stolen" laws think they're ineffective at best, and may very well be harmful to gun owners. They'd rather see politicians focus on more important factors like juvenile crime instead of wasting their time on useless and ineffective laws like these. 

When asked about their experiences with lost and stolen firearm reporting, none of the agencies reported that it was a significant problem in their jurisdiction, and none reported a significant volume of lost or stolen firearm reporting or recoveries. More than one participant reported no reports of lost firearms. The executive from the largest agency participating, which serves a population of more than one million people, reported that theagency had received only 29 reports of lost firearms for the year as of November. Without exception, the participants noted stolen firearm recoveries as routine, but none reported it to be a significant issue. Because we know that firearm thefts do not occur evenly across the states and cities, these findings are not entirely surprising. Even in places where gun violence occurs regularly, agencies may not believe that lost or stolen firearms are a major driver of their gun crime problems or concerns. In terms of stolen firearm recoveries, focus group participants maintained that they did not see a high volume of stolen firearms—or firearms reported as stolen—being recovered at crime scenes.

So stolen guns aren't showing up at a lot of crime scenes, according to the cops who were queried. But what happens when a firearm is reported stolen? The answer won't come as a surprise to many of us, but it also demonstrates that these "lost or stolen" laws aren't the panacea to crime that advocates proclaim them to be. 

During structured interviews with agency representatives (not associated with the focus group), interviewees raised the issue of staffing. In more than one instance, the interviews revealed that little to no investigation is done by the agency taking the report of a lost or stolen firearm unless the firearm theft was part of a more serious offense such as robbery or burglary. This may be particularly true when the reporting party has limited or no details or identifying information regarding the firearm, including serial number, make, model, etc.

No agency is putting out BOLO alerts when a gun is stolen. They'll make a report, but that's it for most jurisdictions. So what is the point of mandating the reporting of such thefts and punishing gun owners who fail to do so with fines or the possibility of jail time? The authors of the study struggled to answer that question, and suggest in their findings that "alternative approaches that favor incentives and behavioral change are worth considering." This is where they earned their money from the Joyce Foundation. 

Support for these ideas can be found in at least two places. First, when searching the internet for “lost and stolen firearm reporting,” one can observe a multitude of law offices and organizations with posted material advising people to report stolen or lost firearms to law enforcement and to be aware of the requirements to do so. These materials do not emphasize fines or even criminal sanctions in some cases. More often, these materials emphasize the benefit of reporting in potentially limiting civil andcriminal liability and keeping law enforcement from contacting (or visiting) the reporting party. Tying sanctions for violations (or repeated violations) to enhanced civil liability or the possibility of future ineligibility to own or possess a firearm may be worth considering instead of fines and petty offense charges. To address concerns shared by some legislators and experts who oppose mandatory reporting laws, enhanced civil liability provisions may need to be balanced with provisions to protect those who simply had no knowledge of the law and those who failed to report in a timely manner without malice or intent to violate the law. 

The people who are responsible for enforcing these laws say they don't do any good and could very well violate the rights of gun owners. They say that stolen guns aren't showing up a lot of crime scenes, and they don't have the resources to investigate most gun thefts unless it was part of a more serious crime. Yet the authors maintain that the penalties for violating these worthless laws should be increased; not through lengthy prison sentences but by stripping someone of their right to own a gun. 

The penalty (or lack thereof) for failing to report isn't the issue with "lost or stolen" laws. It's the premise of the law itself that's problematic, as police officers repeatedly told the authors of this study. It doesn't reduce gun theft, it doesn't reduce straw purchases, it discourages lawful gun ownership, it's almost impossible to enforce, and it does nothing to address the individuals who are actually stealing guns or using them in crime. I can't help but think that if the authors weren't funded by an anti-gun outfit like Joyce they would have come to the same conclusion I did after reading their report: "lost or stolen" laws aren't worth the paper they're printed on.