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Gun theft jumps in Southwest Colorado, prompting calls to lock them up

In two years, 171 guns reported lost or stolen to DA’s office
Kim Wall, evidence technician with the Durango Police Department, pulls out boxes of guns, some of which have been stolen and recovered. A spike in gun thefts across Southwest Colorado has prompted a new campaign to remind residents about the benefits of locking up firearms.

With an increase in car break-ins and home burglaries, and as a consequence more stolen guns on the streets, local law enforcement is pushing a campaign that calls for increased attention to proper and safe gun storage.

“We don’t want them ending up in the wrong hands, said 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne. “It’s like gold out there in the black market.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser recently initiated a campaign based on a gun-safe storage program that started in Laramie County, where an increase in firearm thefts prompted authorities to focus attention on the issue.

In Laramie County, more than 800 guns were stolen out of cars and homes in a two- to three-year period, Champagne said. As a result, officials there have put out public service announcements and other means to speak directly to gun owners.

“It’s an important message,” he said. “Gun owners are generally very responsible with their guns, but over time, people can become lax about storage. This was a reminder to pay attention to this issue.”

Wanting to expand Laramie County’s example across the state, officials in La Plata County were contacted by Weiser’s office to launch a similar program. And, the numbers in Southwest Colorado prove the need, Champagne said.

More car thefts and home break-ins lead to more guns illegally out on the street, Champagne said. And La Plata County’s reported car thefts and home burglaries have been increasing in the past few years.

In 2019, the Durango Police Department reported 71 thefts from inside cars, where local law enforcement say many people leave guns unlocked. That number jumped to 164 car thefts in 2020. And the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office reported 18 stolen vehicles in 2019, which increased to 37 in 2020.

A sample of stolen or found guns kept in the Durango Police Department’s evidence room.

“It’s hard to say,” Champagne said of the an increase in thefts in the area. “I think COVID has hit people really hard. I think people are out of jobs, and motor vehicle theft is seen as a lucrative way to steal, without hurting someone.”

The increase of car thefts, as well as home burglaries, has also led to an increase of stolen firearms, Champagne said.

From 2019 to 2020, a total of 171 guns were reported lost or stolen through the 6th Judicial District, which includes Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties, Champagne said.

“These guns, when they’re stolen, are not generally recovered,” he said. “Those are out there probably doing dangerous things.”

Out of more than 70 guns reported stolen to the Sheriff’s Office since 2019, Sheriff Sean Smith said just two guns have been recovered.

“It’s a little shocking, our numbers,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of guns.”

Many times, Champagne said, when a suspect enters a car or home, they steals multiple firearms in one go. Sometimes, the guns reappear in local crimes, but more often, the firearms leave the region.

“We see these guns travel, often part of the drug trade,” he said. “They are a valuable commodity within criminal circles. It’s sort of a jackpot when they find one.”

Most guns are stolen from homes, then cars, and to a lesser extent, storage units, Champagne said. And simple measures, such as making sure guns are stored properly in safes and vaults, or removing guns from cars, can curb the issue.

Durango Police Deputy Chief Brice Current said gun thefts from cars are a big issue in city limits. Many times, he said, the cars aren’t even locked.

“Don’t make yourself a victim,” he said. “Just take the firearm out of your vehicle.”

Local gun retailers and pawnshops have seen issues, too.

Bruce Dominy, owner of Rocky Mountain Pawn & Gun, said 15 guns were stolen last month. It appears, he said, that just one suspect broke through a window, stole all the guns and used a backpack to carry out the haul.

Dominy said it marked the first break-in since the store opened nearly 30 years ago.

“It hurt us bad,” he said. “We were down here that night and it seems like we just missed them.”

Smith said the case remains under investigation. But, he said it can be difficult to track when guns reappear in crimes locally, because federal regulations say authorities are not allowed to keep a registry of firearms.

“If it’s not reported lost or stolen, we don’t have tracking information,” he said.

But making sure guns are secure doesn’t just keep them out of the hands of potential criminals, Champagne said. It also helps make sure they don’t fall into the hands of juveniles.

Across the U.S., eight children are unintentionally shot by a gun every day, Champagne said. Since 2015, he said 21 unintentional shootings by children in Colorado resulted in nine deaths.

In March 2018, a 9-year-old was accidentally shot and killed by his juvenile sibling southeast of Durango in Archuleta County. The children reportedly broke into a locked cabinet that had two firearms, one of which was loaded.

And, Champagne said secured firearms can help keep guns out of the hands of juveniles attempting suicide. He said nationwide more than 80% of youth suicides involve a firearm that belongs to a family member.

In La Plata County, two juveniles have died from using a firearm since 2018, said Coroner Jann Smith.

“We don’t want (unsecured guns) ending up in the wrong hands, whether that’s in the hand of criminals or in the hands of teens and children who may do things that are dangerous to themselves or others,” Champagne said.

Robert Bradley, manager of KP Pawn & Sales in Durango, said safe gun storage is a constant conversation in the firearm community. The store gives out gunlocks, and sells safes and vaults, he said.

“It’s not a law they have to lock it, but we recommend it just because,” he said. “Everyone seems to be pretty open to the idea.”

A representative with Good For The Woods declined to comment.

Two newly proposed bills in the Colorado state Legislature speak directly to the issue.

One, Senate Bill 78, would require residents to report lost or stolen firearms within five days. And another, House Bill 1106, would impose fines on gun owners who don’t use a safe, trigger lock or cable lock when weapons are stored.

Both measures appear headed toward passage, according to The Colorado Sun.

“We’re looking at (the local initiative) as a complementary effort to what’s going on in Legislature,” Champagne said.

Champagne said local law enforcement hopes to partner with gun retailers to help increase messaging about proper gun storage. The District Attorney’s Office also plans to start rolling out public service announcements about the matter.

“Gun owners are incredibly smart and safe about using their guns, but this is an area to bring back into people’s awareness and consciousness,” he said. “When people use their guns, they always follow safe protocols. The storage piece needs to be part of the equation.”


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