Across town, a wave of looters easily stole dozens of firearms, whisking them off the shelves of a sporting goods store, as seen in surveillance video obtained by Business Insider. On his way out, one looter could be seen circling back to pilfer an American flag.
Fayetteville was not alone. While militarized police forces squared off with mostly peaceful protesters across America that week, more than 1,000 guns were stolen from gun stores, an unseen crime with serious repercussions for community safety.
The gun thefts were not related to the protests, the ATF saidin AlbuquerqueandDallas, but “exploited” them. ATF spokeswoman April Langwell said “there were thefts away from the rioting. Those responsible could have been taking advantage of the opportunity.”
While police in riot gear kept their eyes on protesters demonstrating against police brutality and institutional racism, ATF data show burglars swept through gun stores in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.
“That spike was huge,” Thomas Chittum, ATF assistant director of field operations, told Business Insider. “This was on 100 different fronts.”
The ATF reported 343 gun store burglaries in 2019, or about one a day, nationwide. On May 31 alone, there were 13.
The ATF expects criminals will use the stolen guns in future crimes
The ATF, which provided Business Insider with gun theft records and videos, says the gun store robberies were largely unreported in the media,except for a fewarticles.
But the agency expects the stolen guns will be used in violent crimes in each of those communities in the future. By definition, every stolen gun is in the hands of a criminal, the ATF points out.
From January 2010 until December 2015, 9,736 guns that theATF tracedhad been reported stolen or lost from gun stores.
In 2018,a man was shot deadin Anchorage, Alaska, with a gun stolen from a store days earlier. In Memphis, Tennessee, 21 firearms stolen from gun stores were linked to homicides, including one of a 16-year-old boy, The Commercial Appeal newspaper found ina 2017 investigation.
Gun store burglaries are not comparable to the looting of other retail stores, the ATF says.
“Most of the stolen guns end up being used in crimes locally,” Chittum said. “Unlike the theft of a TV or jewelry, these crimes have a lingering impact on communities.”
Activists are pushing police to shift priorities from militarization to community protection
JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images
As the Black Lives Matter movement raises questions about policing, some analysts say departments need to shift their priorities from military approaches like confronting protesters to addressing needs that positively impact communities.
“Issues around these thefts from gun stores don’t get attention,” Chelsea Parsons of the liberal think tank The Center for American Progress told Business Insider. “One of the core issues that is being raised by many of the protests is how are the decisions being made about where law enforcement resources are being directed.”
Those resources have largely been directed toward militarizing the police, and away from securing gun stores, records show.
Due to limited resources, the ATF is only able to inspect about one-fifth of firearms sellers a year, records show. The Center for American Progress andGiffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violencesay there must be better inspection, oversight, and regulation of gun dealers.
Compare that to the$6.8 billionin military weaponry the Department of Defense has poured into local law enforcement in the last 17 years under its 1033 Program that allocates weapons to police.
In cities and towns throughout the US, that can result in local agencies bulging with military weapons in ways critics say are unnecessary. In Cumberland County, the birthplace of Floyd where looters swarmed the sporting goods store, the Alcohol Beverage Control agency obtained five rifles and infrared sniper sights from the military, Raleigh’sABC-11 news found.
The militarization of America’s police isn’t working, some researchers say. A2018 studyshowed “militarized ‘special weapons and tactics’ (SWAT) teams are more often deployed in communities of color, and — contrary to claims by police administrators — provide no detectable benefits in terms of officer safety or violent crime reduction, on average.”
Meanwhile, the ATF — which is responsible for investigating terrorism, organized crime, and arson in addition to the illegal use of firearms — “has been starved for resources for many years,” Parsons said.
The agency says it will ultimately retrieve many of the guns stolen in Atlanta and other cities, once criminals use and abandon them.
“A lot of these will be recovered at local crime scenes,” Chittum said.