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SALT LAKE CITY — Last April, two Salt Lake County Sheriff's deputies were shot in the face. Months later, two police officers were wounded during a deadly standoff in Taylorsville. The previous year, a mother was murdered in Millcreek.
According to investigators, all three violent incidents involved a gun that had been stolen out of a car or a home in Utah.
"The first point of impact is in the community because they get used in (the) commission of crimes against citizens," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
Gill, along with law enforcement officials in Salt Lake County, are publicly pleading with lawful gun owners to secure their firearms.
Data reveals increase in gun thefts
"It's very critical that we work on preventing the theft in the first place," said Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Joshua Ashdown.
KSL investigators reviewed the department's data from the last three years and found a 58% increase in reports of stolen guns from 2019 (196) to 2020 (310), with only a slight drop in 2021.
The numbers show 294 guns were stolen primarily out of homes and cars in Salt Lake City last year, which Ashdown considers to be "pretty high."
The data also shows a significant amount of the guns reported stolen remain unaccounted for. A quarter of the guns reported to the department as stolen in 2019 have been recovered. In 2021, that number dropped to 17%.
"If a firearm is stolen, it's typically stolen by somebody with nefarious means and nefarious intents," Ashdown said. "And we don't know where that firearm is going to end up."
The KSL investigators requested data from 11 other police departments across Salt Lake County and found that only five departments had data for both gun thefts and recoveries available for the entirety of the last three years.
Data provided by the Sandy, West Valley City, South Salt Lake, West Jordan and Murray police departments reveals trends similar to those shown in the Salt Lake City Police Department's data.
Combined total reports of lost and stolen guns from the five departments show a 58% increase from 2019 to 2020, and a 9% increase from 2020 to 2021. And the departments' reports of recovered firearms make up only 25% of those reported stolen.
Correlation between gun thefts and crime
Outside of typical police work, Ashdown said there's not much law enforcement can do to recover firearms once they're stolen.
"There's a high probability that when we do recover a firearm, it's going to be found on somebody who might be involved in a crime or being arrested," he said.
Gill, who has publicly promised this his office will more aggressively prosecute violent crimes involving firearms, points to insights published in the Utah Department of Public Safety's 2020 Crime in Utah report.
According to the report, there were 93 homicides in Utah in 2020, a 44% increase from the previous year. A firearm was used in 67% of homicides in 2020, up from 55% in 2019. And data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows a 48% increase in background checks for firearm purchases in Utah from 2019 to 2020.
"We were seeing this correlation between both the proliferation of guns, the theft of vehicle burglaries and home burglaries, and the improper storage of those guns, and then ultimately ending up out in violent crimes," said Gill.
More guns in the market
Gun dealers are also reporting increased sales during the same time frame.
"2019 was normal, 2020 was high, 2021 was very high, and we're leveling out just a little bit right now," said Amanda Black, general manager at Ready Gunner in Orem.
Black said they've sold to both first-time buyers and longtime gun owners, and most are focused on safely handling their firearms.
"But a lot of people don't think beyond that and go to the security side like, 'How do I secure this firearm? How am I going to keep it safe within my home?' Those types of things, I think, are really important," she said, "and probably should be something that's a little bit more forefront on people's minds."
While officials point to increased gun sales and unsecured firearms as possible factors in Utah's firearm theft problem, Black said she believes addressing crime should be part of the solution.
"It's a firearm and the consequences of one being stolen are very bad," she said. "So of course, it is the responsibility of the gun owner, but we also need to do more, I think, to mitigate the crime that's going on right now."
Preventing gun theft
Once a gun is stolen, both community members and law enforcement are at risk, Ashdown said.
"We as a police department cannot ever get ahead of a curve like that," he said. "Which is why it's really critical that we ask for partnership with our community to secure the firearms in advance."
Police are asking gun owners in Utah to take photos and document the serial numbers of their firearms, avoid leaving them in vehicles, and keep guns at home secured in a safe.
"I can't ask any more sincerely than to please document your serial number," he said. "Don't leave a firearm in your car unsecured, even in a garage."