by Gabriel Sandoval and Dave Waddell
Against a backdrop of rising gun thefts nationally, a stolen gun is recovered by authorities in Chico an average of once every eight days. And while nearly three-fourths of all stolen guns in the city are pistols, multiple stolen assault rifles are recovered each year.
That’s based on data from an 18-month investigation by The Trace, a nonprofit news organization, and more than a dozen NBC-owned television stations, which collected information on stolen guns from hundreds of law enforcement agencies and collaborated on a series of reports last year.
“American gun owners, preoccupied with self-defense, are inadvertently arming the very criminals they fear,” says The Trace’s Nov. 20, 2017, story.
“ … The great majority of guns stolen each year in the United States are taken from everyday owners,” adds The Trace.
According to the data, which ChicoSol reviewed, 265 stolen guns were recovered by law enforcement in Chico from 2010 through 2015. The data – compiled from records of the Chico Police Department, Chico State’s University Police and the California Highway Patrol in Chico — came from the state Department of Justice, which maintains a repository of such information.
Lt. Billy Aldridge of the Chico Police Department said in a recent interview that recovered guns are for the most part broken into pieces and disposed of.
“We have in the past sold firearms, (but) it’s just been sporting firearms,” Aldridge said. “No assault rifles. No handguns. Typically your shotguns (were) the ones … sold. … But (last) year (Police Chief Mike O’Brien) … decided we are not selling any guns.”
One study, as reported here found that in about eight out of 10 cases, the perpetrator in a gun crime was “in illegal possession” of the weapon.
A study published in February by the American Journal of Public Health found that a majority of U.S. gun owners keep at least one firearm unlocked. Experts in gun research consider “information about how criminals get guns” their No. 1 unanswered question, according to a New York Times report published March 4.
Among the stolen guns recovered in Chico during the six-year period studied were 190 pistols, 46 rifles and 29 shotguns. An average of 44 stolen guns were recovered each year, according to the data.
At least 13 of the stolen guns were AR-15-style assault rifles – dubbed “America’s rifle” by the National Rifle Association – of the type often used in mass shootings, including Feb. 14 at a Parkland, Fla., high school, where 17 students and staff members were killed. Among the stolen assault rifle models recovered in Chico were two Colt M4s and two Smith & Wesson MP15s.
The most common gun stolen in Chico, according to the data, was a tie between 9mm Glocks and 40 caliber Glocks, with 10 of each type pistol recovered by authorities during the period studied.
Sue Hilderbrand, who co-produced the new film “American Totem”about guns in the U.S., said she was troubled by the number of stolen guns in Chico but cautioned against missing the bigger picture of gun violence in the U.S.
“Although it is scary to think about the number of stolen firearms in our community, particularly the ARs, we should keep in mind that the vast majority of gun-related deaths are suicide, not homicide,” said Hilderbrand, who teaches political science at Chico State and Butte College. “Also, mass shootings are most often a result of domestic violence situations; in other words, people generally kill people they know, not strangers.”
Lt. Aldridge said stolen guns in Chico are sometimes found at violent crime scenes, such as homicides, but can also be recovered during routine police stops. These guns, he said, are usually stolen from vehicles, homes or businesses when gun owners neglect to store their firearms in safes, car trunks or other secured containers.
In California, improper storage of a firearm is illegal and can carry heavy penalties if children are knowingly put in danger. It is also against the law to transport a loaded gun in a car, and handguns must be transported in a locked container or in the trunk of a car. Holders of concealed weapons permits are exempt from those requirements, Aldridge said.
Three days before Thanksgiving 2017, on a drizzly afternoon, an employee of the Chico Area Recreation District (CARD) told police her loaded handgun was stolen when she left her car unlocked and unattended near Bidwell Junior High School. Within an hour, officers recovered the weapon, still loaded, from 24-year-old Lucas East, who matched a description of a suspect given to police: a man riding a bike and towing a trailer. East was arrested on suspicion of grand theft near Dutch Bros. Coffee on Cohasset Road and booked into Butte County Jail.
On Dec. 20, East pleaded no contest in Butte County Superior Court to felony carrying a loaded handgun in a plea deal in which a felony gun theft charge was dismissed. He was sentenced to three years of probation.
The CARD employee, who had unloaded items from her car for a class she was teaching at the Pleasant Valley Recreation Center on North Avenue, left her vehicle unattended for about 30 minutes, police said. Realizing the gun and other items were stolen, she got the suspect’s description from a bystander and, after calling the police, drove around looking for a man fitting the profile. When she spotted one, she called the police again, leading to the arrest.
Nicole Sherman, an assistant professor of criminal justice and political science at Chico State and co-author of several articles on Los Angeles prisoners who had been charged with the illegal possession of firearms, said inmates she had spoken to were usually not committing burglaries with the intention of stealing guns.
They did, however, know where firearms were stored and which neighborhoods had high rates of gun ownership, she continued.
“There’s a lot of talk about gun safes, but they don’t do a lot of good if they aren’t bolted in place. We’ve heard (from L.A. prisons) ‘we’ll just grab the whole safe.’ In our sample we didn’t talk to a lot of people who specifically went out to steal guns, but it did happen.”
Chico PD’s Aldridge agrees about the importance of gun safes that can’t be hauled off. “We always recommend that folks get a safe – that can’t be picked up and moved by someone – and store their firearms and extremely valuable items within those,” he said.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey noted that the theft of a firearm was a felony in California prior to the passage in 2014 of Proposition 47, which made the theft of guns valued at under $950 a misdemeanor.
“Most all firearms are valued at under $950,” Ramsey said. “Proposition 63 (approved by state voters in 2017) recognized the dangerousness of making gun theft a mere misdemeanor and restored the law that the theft of any firearm is a felony.”
Aldridge said the Police Department takes gun violations seriously, and offenders are often taken to the Butte County Jail.
“Unless it’s something that is very minor and you’ve got a responsible person who just made a mistake, then maybe a citation is in order for that,” he said. “Otherwise, typically, it’s a trip down to the jail.”
The CARD employee, however, was not taken to jail nor given a citation for failing to transport the ammunition separate from the gun, and for not storing the gun inside her trunk or a locked box, which are illegal in California.
“The victim in that case … was sternly reprimanded for (her) failure to transport and secure the weapon within the law,” Aldridge said.
Mason Masis contributed reporting for this story. Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol and Gabriel Sandoval is a former intern now working at ProPublica.
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