Brian Freskos, Reporter, The TraceDaniel Nass, Reporter, The TraceBen Hallman, Deputy Editor, The TraceMiles Kohrman, Senior Editor, The TraceStephen Stock, NBC Bay Area, Senior Investigative Reporter Michael Bott, NBC Bay Area Investigative ProducerLynn Walsh, NBC San Diego Investigative Executive Producer Dave Summers, NBC San Diego ReporterJay Yoo, NBC San Diego PhotographerKenny Jacoby, NBC San Diego Data InternMatthew Glasser, NBC LA Investigative ProducerJoel Grover, NBC LA Investigative ReporterAndres Pruna, NBC LA EditorKatie Wilcox, 9News Denver, Investigative ReporterNicole Vap, 9News Denver, Executive ProducerChris Vanderveen, 9News Denver, Investigative Reporter Anna Hewson, 9News Denver, Investigative Photojournalist Tony Pipitone, NBC Miami, Investigative ReporterDawn Clapperton, NBC Miami, Executive ProducerKatie Kim, NBC Chicago, Investigative ReporterKatie Smyser, NBC ChicagoMike Goldrick – NBC Washington News DirectorJodie Fleischer – NBC Washington Investigative Reporter Scott MacFarlane - NBC Washington Investigative Reporter Rick Yarborough – NBC Washington Investigative Producer Tolleah Price – NBC Washington ProducerJeff Piper - NBC Washington PhotographerJim O’Donnell, NBC Philadelphia, Executive ProducerKaren Hensel, NBC Boston, Investigative ReporterKenny Plotnik, NBC Boston, News DirectorDoug Moser, NBC Boston, Investigative ProducerAlly Donnelly, NBC Boston, Investigative ReporterAndy Pierrotti, 11Alive NBC Atlanta, Investigative Reporter Andy Alclock, NBC Kansas City, Investigative ReporterRex Harris, NBC Kansas City, Special Projects Photographer Jeremy Berg, NBC National Digital Innovation TeamJennifer Tran Anissi, NBC National Digital Innovation Team Dan Przygoda, NBC National Innovation TeamRon Campbell, NBC National Data EditorNelson Hsu, NBC National Digital TeamNoreen O’Donnell, NBC National Digital TeamSam Hart, NBC National Digital Team
Guns are stolen with astonishing frequency in the United States. Hundreds of thousands are taken each year from homes, cars, and stores — often, from owners who failed to take basic steps to secure them from theft. Each stolen gun, by definition, ends up in a criminal’s hands. The consequences of gun theft are little understood. Few laws exists that require gun owners to protect their weapons from theft, or ensure that, in the event of a theft, a stolen firearm is reported to authorities. We believe that our project, which published near the end of 2017, has high potential to spur federal, state, and local reform efforts.There is no federal law requiring that guns be stored securely, and just four states have enacted some version of a safe-storage law. Our reporting shows that the issue of safe storage is particularly urgent when it comes to vehicles. Over the last five years, thefts from cars have surged, often in states that have rolled back restrictions on carrying firearms in public. Our reporting also found that law enforcement agencies are often left in the dark about the true extent of gun theft. Just 11 states require gun owners to report thefts to police. Even in states that have a reporting requirement, it is seldom enforced. This knowledge gap can hamstring investigation efforts and cause the public to underestimate the threat of theft. A top goal of the investigation was to reach local audiences in places where gun theft is surging. The NBC partners were crucial in helping us achieve this ambition, as were the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Wichita Eagle, which published versions of our main story. We also released all of our data online and wrote a reporting guide so that other journalists and researchers can study gun markets and replicate our work. We have been contacted by several reporters who said they plan to write stories about gun theft for local audiences.
What makes this project innovative?
Our efforts eventually yielded more than 800,000 records of stolen and recovered guns from 1,054 law enforcement agencies. Matching serial numbers of guns contained in the two sets of records enabled us to identify crimes involving a weapon that was reported stolen. These records allowed reporters to flesh out the circumstances under which the thefts occurred, obtain anecdotes about major crimes committed with stolen guns, and identify human sources for interviews. What we found has profound public safety implications. Legal gun owners, aided by lawmakers who are rolling back restrictions on carrying firearms in public, are inadvertently fueling a growing criminal market. Gun theft is on the rise — especially from vehicles. And stolen weapons don’t just disappear: they are used to carry out heinous crimes, including robberies, assaults, and murders.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
The project produced other immediate results. A gun-violence prevention advocate told us she was going to use our findings during a presentation in front of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Police departments issued advisories on social media urging their residents to avoid leaving their weapons in vehicles — or, if they do, ensure that they are secured. A city leader in Denver called for a summit of law enforcement officials to discuss legislative remedies. The Los Angeles Times’s editorial board called on Congress to rescind laws that prevent gun-violence research. After an NBC 10 Philadelphia reporter confronted Pennsylvania’s NRA-backed judiciary committee chairman about his resistance toward a lost-and-stolen reporting requirements bill, the lawmaker changed course and promised to hold a hearing. In December, a U.S. Congressman alerted us of his intention to introduce legislation that would mandate the creation of a gun ID card — complete with a serial number and other important identifying information — with each sale. The bill, inspired by our reporting, is intended to increase the number of gun theft reports.
Source and methodology
Our project began in the fall of 2016, when The Trace reported on a new survey of gun owners from researchers at Harvard University. One of the findings that most astonished us was that the estimated number of weapons stolen from legal owners every year exceeds 300,000. We wanted to find out how these guns are stolen and where they end up. We contacted journalists at NBC Bay Area, who had already begun working with other NBC reporters in California to examine this issue, and decided to replicate their model on the national level. Over the next year, with essential help from the NBC station partners, we embarked on the biggest public records campaign any of us had ever been involved with, requesting data on stolen guns from police departments across the United States. Some departments quickly turned over the records we requested in a format that was easy to add to our database. Most did not. We spent hundreds of hours following up, cleaning and entering messy data, and analyzing the results. Many agencies provided records in .pdf format or mailed us hard copies. In some cases, we had to manually enter the data. Some police departments said we did not have the right to stolen-weapon reports and serial numbers, and we were forced to fight. We won an administrative appeal against the District of Columbia and settled a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department that resulted in the release of serial numbers. Our efforts eventually yielded more than 800,000 records of stolen and recovered guns from 1,054 law enforcement agencies. Matching serial numbers of guns contained in the two sets of records enabled us to identify crimes involving a weapon that was reported stolen. These records allowed reporters to flesh out the circumstances under which the thefts occurred, obtain anecdotes about major crimes committed with stolen guns, and identify people for interviews. We also made public our database of stolen-gun data, so other journalists may follow, and build on, our work.
Given all the partners working on this project, organization was a huge challenge. The Trace and the NBC outlets shared the documents they collected on DropBox and used Google Sheets to track the requests that each reporter filed, ensuring no one overlapped and wasted time and resources. In the last several months of reporting, reporters and editors held weekly conference calls to update each other on their progress.