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Investigation Reveals Growing Threat Of Stolen Firearms In South Florida

According to the data compiled by The Trace, firearm thefts from vehicles went up nearly 120% in Ft. Lauderdale & up almost 75% in Miami between 2010 and 2015.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

There are nearly two million gun licenses in Florida but figuring out exactly how many guns are in the state is a more challenging figure to extract. Florida, like most states, does not require gun owners to register their weapons. 

new joint investigation by NBC-Owned Television Stations and the journalism non-profit  The Trace, finds a sharp increase in recent years of guns stolen from cars and trucks in South Florida--and these guns find their way into the hands of criminals. 

WLRN's Tom Hudson spoke to investigative reporter Tony Pipitone with NBC 6 South Florida about the investigation on The Florida Roundup. Here are the highlights of their conversation:

WLRN: Tony, what struck you as you dug into trying to get a handle on stolen guns? 

What we tried to do was to take a very large view. We got thousands of records from police agencies listing the serial numbers of guns that were stolen and then we got the serial numbers of guns that were recovered at crime scenes and when we did a match, we found a lot. We found a lot of guns. In fact, nationwide, The Trace was able to find more than 20,000 firearms that had been recovered by police over a five-year period that were stolen. About 1,500 of them were serious crimes.

Locally, we looked at a few departments we could get the data from and what struck me was that the way these guns are being stolen is changing. And it may be changing because people are more conscious of the dangers of firearms in the home,  but unfortunately they're leaving them in their cars.  

You looked at Miami and Fort Lauderdale in terms of stolen firearms. What did you find?

Over the five-year period, the number of firearms stolen from cars was up 120 percent in Fort Lauderdale, and that was among the largest increases we found across the country. Miami was a little more toward the middle, up about 80 percent. 

Is that a statistic that law enforcement has tracked for many years?

Anecdotally, when we talk to law enforcement, they say, "We know this is happening and we try to get the education out that you need to keep your gun in a secure place." But, people don't get the message, including sometimes law enforcement. We found a case where a Miami-Dade police officer had his weapon stolen from his marked vehicle which was outside a house in Southwest Dade just in August. 

The report looked at the market for illegal weapons. How does that cycle happen?

People who can't legally get a gun, there's going to be a market for them and that's going to be on the street. For instance, there was a Pompano Beach drug trafficking organization that ATF [ Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] went after and they had actually  sold over  a little more than a year 285 firearms illegally. Many of them went to an ATF agent and about 40 of them were confirmed to be stolen. So, this Operation Clean House was able to get those guns off the street, but there are so many that it's reached the point now where its saturation. 

When you talk to law enforcement, what's the sense of engagement on stolen firearms?

Especially with juveniles, it turns out. One of our reporters went out with a multi-agency gang task force and they deal often with juveniles, which of course, can't legally possess and buy handguns. And they say they know that they're going through parking lots, they are burglarizing cars, they're burglarizing houses and that's especially where this is a problem because young people with a gun who have's not going to end well.  

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Bridget O'Brien produces WLRN's The Florida Roundup as well as morning newscasts. A long-time public radio geek, she feels that audio journalism can take a story beyond text and allows listeners to truly connect through the power of voice. With a background in drama, she brings a theatrical element to everything she does.