WIS Investigates: SC ranked 11th for stolen, lost guns - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

WIS Investigates: SC ranked 11th for stolen, lost guns

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Nearly 6,000 guns were stolen or missing in South Carolina in 2012. Nearly 6,000 guns were stolen or missing in South Carolina in 2012.
There were more than 335,000 firearms sold in South Carolina in 2013 with 22,000 sold so far in 2014. There were more than 335,000 firearms sold in South Carolina in 2013 with 22,000 sold so far in 2014.
Officials say a low-end firearm can cost $500 to a $1,000 on the streets of states with restrictive firearms laws. Officials say a low-end firearm can cost $500 to a $1,000 on the streets of states with restrictive firearms laws.

In a second, a stolen gun changed Martha Childress' life.

The bullet that severed her spine came from a stolen gun into an unsuspecting crowd in Five Points while she was waiting for a taxi in October. Childress is now paralyzed below the waist.

"The moment I become a victim, he wins, that's the thought that went through my mind, so I didn't want to be a victim anymore," Childress said.

Michael Juan Smith, 21, pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a weapon, which was the .40 caliber Glock that shot Childress. That gun traveled across state lines before it was stolen in Richland County. Smith faces up to 10 years in prison for the federal charge.

Officials said in South Carolina, there's no state law requiring gun owners to keep their weapons secure. Columbia Police say in 85 percent of burglaries, a gun is stolen.

"It's usually during the commission of a burglary or someone had guns in their house that weren't properly secured and the suspects came in and stole them, or auto break-in situations," said interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago.

Gun Black Market

Local law enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives trace many stolen guns to the black market.

"A gun can kill people over and over again in multiple places, and unlike a commodity, like a narcotic or a drug that's used up and gone," said Earl Woodham, supervisory special agent for the ATF, "a gun is, as I've said before, the gift that keeps on giving. It can shoot and kill someone in every state, every day."

A WIS investigation discovered it's greed that sends guns across state lines.

"That is greed. It is money. There's a lot of money to be made if you know what you're doing and you know how to do it when you traffic firearms from South Carolina to let's say New York state," Woodham said.

"You pay a $100 to $150 for a relatively low-end firearm," Woodham continued. "That firearm itself could be $500 to a $1,000 on the streets in some of these states where the firearms laws are very restrictive."

South Carolina's gun laws comply with federal law, so ATF officials say the Palmetto State isn't the problem. ATF officials said it is stricter laws from the northern states that's created the iron pipeline on Interstate 85 and Interstate 95.

"Once your intent and your action is taking the gun out of the state and selling it in another state in violation of their law, then it becomes a violation of law and also a violation of federal law," Woodham said.

By checking ATF's records, WIS discovered South Carolina is among the top states when it comes to the recovery of lost and stolen guns from New Jersey, New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. However, the ATF's numbers are flawed by the agency's own admission because reporting by law enforcement is voluntary, not mandatory.

The Columbia Police Department recovered 583 firearms in 2012 and topped the state's list of firearms that are stolen or lost and reported.

"If there is a gun that is stolen, it should be properly submitted to that database," Santiago said.

The bigger problem is when guns are stolen or lost and not reported.

"The gun owners that don't have the serial numbers readily available, those, as you can imagine, cause delay in reporting and getting it submitted to those databases," Santiago explained. "So that if another officer comes across it or another agency comes across it, they would know it's a stolen weapon."

Nearly 6,000 guns were stolen or missing in South Carolina in 2012. The state is ranked 11th nationwide for stolen and lost guns.

Delays in reporting can be the difference in allowing a stolen gun to remain on the streets or to be confiscated.

"We've actually had some situations where there was some delay that caused us not to get the gun off the street," Santiago said. "So we're really very diligent in making sure that paperwork and those guns are submitted properly."

Keep a Record

ATF says the state law doesn't require individuals to record the serial number or maintain other records for identification purposes, but ATF recommends it.

There were more than 335,000 firearms sold in South Carolina in 2013, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There have been 22,000 sold so far this year in the state.

"There's no registration. Remember there's no registration," Woodham said. "Just because you go to a licensed gun dealer and you buy a gun and you do fill out forms, those forms are to make sure you can lawfully have the gun."

Woodham explained the paperwork that is filed out when a gun is purchased stays in the building, unless the dealer goes out of business. Then those files are moved to an ATF warehouse in Washington, DC. While gun dealers do not have to maintain who a gun was sold to, ATF officials recommend it.

"If in five or 10 years down the road that firearm that is registered to you at the local gun dealer that we can find out, ends up murdering someone across the country, someone is going to come knocking at your door asking you, ‘Where is the gun?'" Woodham said.

In a criminal investigation, that can end a case.

"What's tough is when we hit dead ends in firearms traces and lack of records, because once again, if you don't know where your gun is or you don't know your make, model and serial number of your gun, you could be the person that stops the lead on that firearm," Woodham said. "And we would not be able to continue it to the person who trafficked it up to another state."

In a private sale, if the person won't consent to a background check or doesn't want to give you any information, that's a red flag.

"The gang-banger or the person who wants the gun can feel very comfortable they don't fill out paperwork," Woodham said. "They don't have a background check. Nobody cares what job they have or where their income is or where they're making their money. The seller doesn't care they don't want a record of it. They don't probably want to see them ever again."

Where local law enforcement and the ATF differ is what's done with firearms recovered, but not claimed.

"If the gun is an actually working firearm and the serial numbers aren't obliterated then it allows us an option to actually have those handguns and those weapons auctioned off. And those proceeds from those auctions go towards sometimes helping us recoup the cost of a case," Santiago said.

Firearms recovered by the ATF, no matter the condition, are melted down and kept off the streets to minimize the threat to public safety and law enforcement.

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