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I-TEAM: Hundreds of missing guns go unreported in our two-state radar

Published: Mar. 15, 2021 at 6:16 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-Team is uncovering new information about the number of missing firearms in the two-state.

Our I-Team found hundreds of reports of lost or stolen guns across Georgia and South Carolina in 2020

But there could be many more not on law enforcement’s radar.

Unless you’re a dealer, there is no federal law requiring gun owners to file a report if their gun is lost or stolen.

But some states, 13 in all plus the District of Columbia, have at least some sort of law where you must tell police. Georgia and South Carolina are not on that list.

But there is no number for the ultimate price Investigator Cecil Ridley paid in 2019 when he was shot and killed, but his brothers and sisters in blue at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office are now doing some extra counting.

“Stolen guns are, are stolen to us in crimes, armed robbery, drug dealing, aggravated assaults, the murder of a police officer,” said Sgt. William McCarty with the sheriff’s office.

When the I-Team filed an open records request with Richmond County for the number of incident reports of stolen firearms from 2016 to 2020, we were first told “someone would have to read each report” to get that number. That task would take 40 hours, costing us an estimated $789.

We sent the same requests to Columbia and Aiken Counties, where it seems the data was easier to find. We got those numbers pretty quickly and at no charge. Then we learned Richmond County could do the same and then some, if we crossed out 3 years: 2016, 2017, and 2018.

That’s because deputies specifically started tracking stolen weapons in 2019, the same year Investigator Ridley was killed. That night he was on patrol working to curb gun violence and recover stolen weapons when a bullet from a stolen gun took his life. Deputies say the serial number had been scratched off.

“When you lose somebody just doing exactly what he was out there, targeted and focused to do, it’s just very disheartening,” McCarty said.

The data Richmond County started compiling differently that year is evident. They now keep running tabs of everything from guns that are lost to stolen weapons they’re able to recover.

What stands out the most is the number of stolen firearms especially when you compare it to Aiken County’s two-year total of 565 stolen guns and Columbia County’s total of 206. Richmond County recorded 715 stolen weapons.

“The number is a bit surprising, but then again, I just feel it’s a product of proactive patrols and just the large amount of area that we have to cover,” McCarty said.

Federal data backs up Richmond County’s extra efforts ranking Augusta as number two in the entire state for stolen firearm recovery. No matter where you live, getting guns off the streets is a big deal because of a very important street:

Interstate 20 - nicknamed the “Sex Trafficking Superhighway.”

Our stretch also sits right between two state capitols.

“Do we have an issue with firearms trafficking? I think, I think we have enough to keep us busy,” Arthur Peralta said.

She’s the Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Division of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco or the ATF. The I-Team took to I-20 to ask Agent Arthur Peralta specifically about our place on the map.

“Have you found that it’s also been an issue for guns to trafficking, stolen weapons, selling stolen weapons?” I asked.

“I would say yes,” Peralta said. “We have firearms that are trafficked out of the state of Georgia, and we have firearms that transit the state of Georgia en route to other locations.”

ATF data from 2020 shows pistols are the most common gun that was stolen or lost. Next down the list came rifles, then revolvers, then shotguns.

The I-Team crunched even more data and found Georgia is one of the top states in the entire country for lost and stolen guns even though California has three and a half times more people. In 2020, the ATF tracked 529 in Georgia and just 405 in California, even though California law requires gun owners to report thefts and Georgia has no such laws.

Coincidentally, South Carolina doesn’t have laws like that either, but the I-Team found it has more reports compared to Virginia, state with reporting laws and a bigger population.

“Whether or not there needs to be any more gun laws, that’s a job for the legislators who represent the people in the communities. That’s why we vote for our legislators at both the state and federal level,” Peralta said.

At the local level, Sgt. McCarty says you should always report it if your gun is lost or stolen whether there is a law or not.

“It’s what a responsible gun owner should do,” he said.

That way at least local law enforcement has an idea of how many weapons could be on the street. Possibly preventing a service, like Ridley’s, for any other public servants or maybe even for someone in your own family.

Sgt. McCarty said one of the most common ways weapons are stolen is when someone leaves a gun in an unlocked car. He said if more gun owners would just make sure their weapon is in a safe place, we’d all be in a much better place with this.

It’s a good reminder especially after the recent spike in gun sales which is still going strong.

Experts say to make sure you write down the make, model, and serial number of your gun because if your gun is stolen and you go to report it, it won’t do law enforcement a lot of good if you don’t have that information.

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