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What is behind rising gun thefts?

HOUSTON – Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are grappling with a rise in gun store thefts in Texas and other states. As a result, the ATF is asking gun dealers to take extra precautions in securing firearms. 

While federal law prohibits the ATF from releasing city-specific numbers, the Bureau does release a state-by-state breakdown of the number of firearms reported lost or stolen by firearms dealers.

According to the ATF, over the last three years, gun dealers in Texas filed 598 reports of weapons being lost or stolen. These reports involved a combined total of 4,228 firearms.

“That's the million-dollar question: What's driving it?” said Rob Elder, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Houston office. “My greatest concern is murders are going to rise because of it. Our aggravated assaults are going to rise. My greatest fear is one of them is going to be used to harm a police officer.”

Elder said when it comes to the guns taken during burglaries and thefts in our area, the weapons are not being sent out of state or into Mexico.

“We're seeing the guns are staying local,” said Elder.

One of the most high-profile burglaries involved a Carter’s Country store off the Southwest Freeway. The March 1 break-in was captured on surveillance video and showed a team of burglars using a truck to rip the store’s front doors off the hinges. A group of men are then seen running inside grabbing rifles off the wall and smashing display cases to get pistols. A total of 85 guns were stolen during the break-in.

[MORE: 2013 summary of firearms reported lost and stolen | 2014 summary of firearms reported lost and stolen | FFL 2015 theft loss report | Firearms loss prevention]

Since the burglary, ATF has arrested 10 people and recovered 56 of the stolen guns. ATF officials said they believe some of the men arrested were also involved in burglaries of other gun dealers.

“These larger thefts are being coordinated by groups,” said Elder.

The groups Elder is referring to can consist of members of different gangs setting aside old rivalries in the pursuit of guns.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re a crip, or they’re a blood, or they’re a houstone, or they’re MS-13; if you can go get guns, it all equals money,” said Elder. “It's about cash, and guns do equate to cash.”

Elder said that is one of the biggest motivators in these thefts: On the street, guns are a form of currency.

“They'll trade it for dope. They'll trade it for property. 'I've got a rifle, you've got a TV. Let's do an even swap,'” said Elder.

Stolen guns can also provide a shared arsenal for gangs.

“They're owned by the gang and they're just going to get passed around to whomever needs it at that time,” said ATF Special Agent Greg Alvarez.

Not all of the thefts involve smash-and-grab burglaries. Last year two men were sentenced to federal prison for stealing 19 guns bound for a firearms dealer near San Antonio. ATF officials said two employees of a third-party shipping company stole the guns after the shipment left a wholesaler in Luverne, Alabama. All the weapons were recovered by the ATF.

Stolen guns are also helping feed a growing black market, selling to those who can't legally own a gun. All these factors are why the ATF is asking firearms dealers to take extra steps to secure their weapons, especially when they close their businesses for the day.

Elder said there are no federal regulations that specify exactly how firearms dealers are to secure their weapons.

“We're trying to encourage gun store owners to take their guns and put them into a safe at night,” said Elder.

Realizing the ever present threat of a break-in, some gun dealers are taking those extra steps.

“It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when,” said Travis James, the general manager for the Arms Room.

The Arms Room has gates that secure the front of the building, along with interior gates that are brought down to secure individuals areas of the business after closing. James said rifles are locked onto wall-mounted displays, and roll-top cages are used to cover weapons in display cases.

“(At the) end of the night, we lock them all up,” James said. “If someone breaks in, then it’s going to take them long enough -- they’re going to be tied up long enough, so hopefully police can get here before they can get out.”

President of the Athena Gun Club, Patrick Mann, said his business takes a multi-layered approach to security. In addition to guard patrols, there is an alarm system, security gates and cameras at the business. Mann said all display weapons are also secured after closing.

“We take them and put them in a secure area within the building,” Mann said. “All of our display weapons get put up at night.”

Mann said after the Carter’s Country break-in, his business installed a gate around the property that is locked at night to help prevent a car or truck from driving up to the building.

Elder said instilling the extra sense of security at the end of the business day can go a long way to helping eliminate some gun store thefts. Elder said the Carter’s Country burglary prompted several copycat crimes around the country.

“The best, in my opinion, is if you can't see them, you can't steal them,” said Elder.