Reckless But Law-Abiding: How Guns Get Stolen In McLean County | WGLT

Reckless But Law-Abiding: How Guns Get Stolen In McLean County

Apr 25, 2019

Last summer Normal Police learned of an 80-year-old man with 80 guns. But the ones missing from his Bloomington home mattered most.

Two of the man’s relatives had just been picked up in a Vice Unit bust, and police suspected the handguns they found in that case were unknowingly taken from the man’s collection. Police then discovered the 80-year-old no longer had an active Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card, which he’d lost after a domestic battery conviction. So on June 20, 2018, they went to collect his guns. They found 26 in the basement. Another 23 above the garage. More elsewhere.

"It can happen anywhere, and it happens pretty much everywhere in Bloomington."

“We had concerns based on his health condition, that he might not be able to adequately account for all those,” said Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said. “We didn’t want them to fall into the hands of individuals who knew about them or had access to them. He willingly gave those up to us.”

Police determined four guns were missing, including a stainless-steel Beretta 9mm handgun—just like the one police had recently confiscated at the scene of a 2018 double homicide in Normal. The suspect in that case, Chris Harrison, was friends with the 80-year-old’s grandson and possibly got the gun from the massive collection. Harrison is charged with murder and possession of stolen guns.

The 80-year-old—who slept in a hospital bed hooked up to oxygen—was never charged with illegally possessing all those guns, records show. Tests are still pending on the Beretta to see if it was used in the April 2018 double-homicide.

The man with 80 guns is one of many troubling stories that emerge in 300+ pages of police reports reviewed by GLT, documenting stolen and lost guns in McLean County. At least 69 guns have been reported lost or stolen in 49 separate incidents locally over the past two years, and that’s almost certainly an underestimate.

The reports chip away at a common argument against gun control—that criminals are solely to blame and that law-abiding gun owners are responsible. In report after report, local gun owners made it easy to steal their guns by failing to secure them. 

A few examples: 

  • On July 12, 2017, a Normal man reported his Springfield XDM 9mm handgun missing from the backseat of his car, which he doesn’t always lock. The gun turned up eight months later during a traffic stop near Joliet. A 27-year-old man pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of the firearm.
  • On Dec. 2, 2018, a Bloomington man told police someone stole two shotguns from his unlocked vehicle in his driveaway. 
  • On Sept. 27, 2017, a man reported his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and 37mm launcher—for flares, smoke, or gas rounds—were stolen from an unlocked case in his unlocked residence in Carlock.

When guns get stolen in McLean County, it’s often from the center console or glove box of a vehicle or an unlocked location inside a residence, police reports show.

Bloomington and Normal police recommend against ever leaving a gun in a vehicle, even if it is secured inside.
Credit Amy Niebur / WGLT

“The big one is unlocked vehicles with a loaded weapon inside,” said Bloomington Police spokesperson John Fermon. “It can happen anywhere, and it happens pretty much everywhere in Bloomington.”

In fact, Bloomington and Normal police recommend against ever leaving a gun in a vehicle, even if it is secured inside.

“I know it’s not against the law, but you probably shouldn’t ever leave a gun in a vehicle. That’s just not a good practice,” Fermon said.

Gun owners are not held responsible because what they’re doing isn’t illegal. There’s no law requiring someone to lock up their guns at home or in their car, with one exception in Illinois—if kids under age 14 are nearby. That makes homes and vehicles prime targets for theft. There’s even been research suggesting thieves have targeted vehicles with NRA stickers outside of stadiums, where you can’t bring a gun inside.

“You have correctly sussed out the lack of safe-storage requirements in the state of Illinois,” said Mark Jones, a former ATF agent who is now senior policy advisor for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

Nationally, more than 238,000 guns were stolen in 2016, including 4,745 in Illinois, according to government data obtained by The Trace.

They turn up in all sorts of places.

On Sept. 26, 2017, a Normal man reported his Rossi .357 revolver stolen from his truck, with no signs of forced entry. Weeks later, while investigating an apparent battery being live-streamed on Facebook, Normal Police recovered the gun folded up in a sweatshirt inside a dresser at an apartment where the high-profile incident took place.

Authorities say Alexandria Macon, 18, of Bloomington, stole three guns from their legal owners inside a Normal apartment in March 2018. Prosecutors say she immediately tried to sell the guns illegally, including to Hammet Brown. Months later, Brown was charged with murder in a double homicide on Orchard Road in Bloomington. Court records show a witness told police Brown was always in possession of a .40-caliber Hi-Point handgun—the same kind that Macon allegedly stole.

They can also cross state lines. In 2016 police in San Bernardino, Calif., recovered a stolen Ruger revolver that was reported missing from Bloomington in 1983, records show. They found it, along with some meth, under the mattress of a man who was on probation.

Despite anecdotal evidence like this, the full scope of the America’s stolen gun problem is hard to quantify, said Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins. There’s no single source of data—unlike other types of crime—for researchers to pore over, he said. And if a gun’s serial number is defaced, it can’t even be entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

“All of that adds up to a big murky picture here,” Webster said.

Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner during a press conference at a double homicide in 2018.
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT

These easy thefts come as gun ownership in McLean County is on the rise. Nearly 1 in 5 McLean County residents now has a FOID card, according to Illinois State Police data. That’s more than quadrupled since 2010, rising to 34,388 last year, ISP data show.

Downstate gun owners can be less diligent about locking up their guns compared with those living in Chicago, said Richard Pearson of Chatsworth, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

“It depends on where you’re at, what part of the state you’re in, to a large degree,” Pearson told GLT. “Everyone is careful about that. When you go from here (in Bloomington-Normal) south, it’s not as critical as it is up north. You’ve got people up there that just ramble through houses looking for things like that.”

But there are people rummaging through houses locally. In August 2017, a Bloomington man reported six guns stolen from his home, police reports show. Someone broke in and grabbed them from inside tables and nightstands throughout the house. The man worked out of state and was gone for long periods of time.

No Repercussions

Legal gun owners rarely face repercussions when guns go missing, even when they brush up against what few laws do exist. One of them requires that gun owners report a lost or stolen gun to police within three days of discovering it’s gone.

Around 23 percent of crimes where guns were stolen from individuals were not reported to police, according to an analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey from 2011 to 2015, as reported by the Center for American Progress.

This happens locally. On Sept. 27, 2018, Normal Police found a Ruger .38 pistol under a mattress inside a hotel room. It was traced back to its legal owner, a Bloomington oral surgeon who usually kept it in his vehicle’s center console. He knew it was missing for a few weeks before police notified him it was recovered.

So why wasn’t he charged with failing to report the missing gun? 

“In that investigation, he thought he had maybe moved the gun from where it had been to another location,” said Bleichner, the NPD chief. “Detectives were unable to really pin down that there was intent—that he was aware it was missing and failed to report it to us. We had some pretty extensive conversations with the (McLean County) state’s attorney’s office about it, and ultimately there was a decision not to bring charges.” 

That’s a recurring issue. Someone would basically have to confess to definitively knowing a gun was missing for more than three days.

“We don’t know if a gun is lost or stolen if they don’t tell us,” said Fermon with BPD. 

And it’s only a petty offense for first-time offenders, meaning prosecutors and police have other more pressing priorities. Bloomington and Normal police said they haven’t arrested anyone in recent years for failing to report a missing gun. 

“Most gun thefts are attributed to some sort of felony gun violence, like a homicide. We have to weigh the difference. If we charge somebody with a petty offense for not reporting their gun (stolen), we may not able to use their witness statements if they plead the Fifth Amendment or talk to them because they don’t want to incriminate themselves. So we have to work with the state’s attorney with how those are handled case by case,” Fermon said.

Illinois is one of only 11 states and the District of Columbia that require someone to report their missing gun, according to the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence. It says these laws have been shown to correlate with significant reductions in illegal gun trafficking. 

But without harsher penalties, police have no incentive to enforce the law in Illinois, said Jones with the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. 

"We have an amazing amount of responsible gun owners here in McLean County."

“It’s an indictment of the legislature that they create the law that requires people to report, but then don’t put any teeth in the law,” Jones said. 

Pearson, with the Illinois State Rifle Association, said there’s a simpler reason why no one ever gets charged with this offense: Gun owners follow the law.

Opposing New Storage Laws

Pearson said gun owners by and large responsibly store their firearms. He said ISRA would oppose any attempt to legally require guns to be locked up.

“Every time the lawmakers try and cook up some scheme, it is so complex that it doesn’t work,” Pearson said. “The law-abiding gun owner is not the problem here. It’s the non-law-abiding gun owner that’s the problem.” 

That’s a sentiment shared by some in local law enforcement. 

McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp and his prosecutors regularly charge defendants with unlawful possession of guns, including stolen guns. He cautioned against attributing too much of the local increase in gun violence to stolen weapons. 

“We have an amazing amount of responsible gun owners here in McLean County,” Knapp told GLT. “For me, to attribute gun violence to those gun owners, I’m just not there. The people responsible for the gun violence are the people that are committing the gun violence.” 

Chief Bleichner was also reluctant to blame gun owners who, for example, are the victim of a break-in for where their stolen gun ends up. 

“Certainly, I would want people to secure their firearms and protect them. But as far as pushing additional legislation … I’m just not willing to go there,” he said. “We’re in a sense re-victimizing people who’ve been the victim of a burglary. Someone has forced entry in someone’s home, which is the most sacred place.”

Coming Friday: A Bloomington-Normal hunter and target-shooter talks about why he feels responsible for locking up his guns.

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