HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - In the last five years, there have been more than 800 weapons reported stolen in the City of Hattiesburg.
Some of those weapons have been linked to murders and other violent crimes in the Hub City, as well as other places around the country.
"A criminal thinks very maliciously, and they don't want something that will tie them back to a crime," said Hattiesburg Police Captain Branden McLemore. "So of course, they are going to take the opportunity to steal a weapon from someone that legally obtained that weapon."
According to the Violence Policy Center, which advocates for gun safety, more than half of households in Mississippi own at least one gun. With that many guns throughout the state, how those weapons are kept safe is one of the biggest issues.
"We've had a total of 811 guns stolen from October 31 of 2012 in the City of Hattiesburg alone, of those weapons, we're only showing 101 to date that have been recovered," he said.
McLemore said that number can be slightly skewed, because guns recovered by other law enforcement agencies and other jurisdictions don't add to their totals inside HPD.
"It certainly is a critical issue when we look at what it is that we're trying to do and that is impact local communities, assist local and state law enforcement in violent crime reduction," said Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Resident Agent in Charge of South Mississippi, Jason Denham.
Denham said criminals' ease of access to guns in the state is a large problem.
"The armed career offenders, what we call offenders who are three, four, five time convicted felons, they are able to acquire firearms through various means, one of those being theft," said Denham.
The main avenue of theft is auto burglaries, with majority of them being left unlocked in the Hub City.
"What you have done, is that unlocked vehicle that was meant to be an innocent act of putting in your glove compartment or putting it inside your vehicle, you've allowed that criminal to put that gun on the street," McLemore said. "What ends up happening is that weapon ends up being used in some type of violent act, it be an armed robbery, it be an aggravated assault."
Repeat offenders and other criminals using the stolen guns for violent crimes are a top target of the ATF, according to Denham.
"The ones that we are really trying to target, the aggravated assaults, the attempted murders, shootings, robberies, things of that nature," Denham said. "Those individuals armed is certainly a concern of ours, and its one that we want to focus on disarming, and you know ideally putting these people out of population for a period of time."
The majority of the weapons stolen in the Hub City area are handguns, with the occasional long rifle or AR-15.
"You're not going to run down the street with an AR-15 after you just broke into a residence, majority of our weapons are compact weapons, or pistols or handguns," McLemore said.
A recent shooting on Bowling Street in Hattiesburg led police to a pair of stolen AR-15 rifles.
"Those weren't even stolen from our jurisdiction, they were stolen from Texas," said McLemore.
Less than 40 miles away, on Jan. 14, 2017, a shooting in Laurel led authorities to a stolen weapon that was traced back to the Hub City.
Another top concern for law enforcement is stolen weapons leaving the state of Mississippi.
"We see a lot of firearms trafficked from Mississippi, what we call a source state, into other areas of the country," Denham said.
One of the main areas those weapons end up in is Illinois.
"You do see a major correlation with the central Illinois, Chicago, northern Illinois area and the Chicago-metro area in particular," said Denham. "It's something that has historically been true, and that being what we call a target area for firearms, and Mississippi being a source area and understanding the difference between that and that it's harder to acquire firearms in Chicago, and so the value is expectantly increased."
According to Chicago's 2017 Gun Trace Report, and annual report that the city releases, 5.1 percent of guns recovered in Chicago come from Mississippi, which is ranked third in the country.
From 2013 to 2016, a total of 756 guns were recovered in Illinois that came from Mississippi.
With a total of six gun laws in the United States, Mississippi has zero.
With Mississippi being one of the top 10 contributors to Chicago, the Magnolia State lacks laws in these categories:
- Permit to purchase firearms
- Registration of firearms
- Lost and stolen background check
- Gun show background check
- Private sale background check
- State gun dealer regulations
McLemore said there are ways to drop those numbers, lock your car doors to prevent simple auto burglaries and protect your weapons.
"Same thing goes for your vehicle, treat it as your property, you don't want no one going in your vehicle, so lock your doors," he said. "Don't leave it there lying so some criminal can walk along and see it just sitting there, and then take the opportunity of saying hey, I want that gun."
McLemore added that guns are also a target of theft, to then be sold for drugs.
"The AR-15s and rifles, hunting rifles, I can't tell you countless times how many people come down here and say hey, my son, my nephew, or my niece or whatever broke into my residence and took all my guns and they sold them, just because of their drug addiction," said McLemore.
A specific example of a stolen weapon linked to a crime is the murders of HPD officers Benjamin Deen and Liquori Tate in 2015.
"The officer shooting, those weapons, that gun was actually stolen from a family member and then it was sold on the street for drugs," McLemore said.
He said one of the best things for gun owners to do is keep track of serial numbers.
"If you can't tell me the serial number for your weapon, or what weapons you have, you can't honestly prove that your gun was even stolen, we can't list it on NCIC, we can't try to recover it because they didn't just make one particular model of a Glock 21," said McLemore. "They make multiple of almost every weapon, and that serial number is a big key."
He said with a serial number, law enforcement can do a lot more to recover a stolen weapon.
One thing officers around the country do daily is work to educate the public on protecting your weapons.
"The law-abiding citizens are obtaining the weapons legally, the criminals are the ones maliciously taking advantage of that situation and taking those guns from the law-abiding citizens," McLemore said. "All we can do is basically educate the public and basically try to focus (them) on securing those weapons, treating them as such as their property and keeping those out of the reach of criminals."