Note: Ownership of firearms is a deeply personal decision and, for many, a divisive and emotional issue. This article is not intended to encourage firearms ownership or to take a stance on whether reporting of stolen firearms should be mandatory under the law. Rather, it is intended to inform those who choose to own firearms about responsible actions that should be taken in the event their firearm is stolen.
Preparing For the Worst
Responsible individuals who choose to own firearms must acknowledge the possibility that, despite their best efforts, their firearm may someday be stolen. Every responsible firearms owner should prepare for the worst.
The single most important piece of information to have on hand in the event your firearm is stolen is its complete serial number. Not being able to provide a serial number to law enforcement effectively gives the thief and any subsequent black-market buyers a “free pass” by making it far more difficult to link them to the original theft of the firearm. Not being able to provide this information also complicates return of your firearm (if it ever is recovered) and potential reimbursement by your insurance company.
In addition to the serial number, certain other information can be very helpful:
- The make, model and year of manufacture
- Any unique identifying marks, engraving, modifications or accessories
- The location and date of purchase or transfer
- The original (or latest, if purchased used) price or current valuation of the firearm
Contrary to popular belief, there is no national registration of firearms and BATFE neither captures nor maintains serial numbers of purchased firearms in the normal course of their operations. A few states do have mandatory firearms registration (Georgia is not one of them) but are not always at liberty to disclose that information to any party, including the original owner. Serial numbers for firearms purchased from licensed firearms dealers will be retained in their records for some period of time, however, there are many circumstances under which this information may not be retained, available or eligible for disclosure, even to the original purchaser.
In short, it is incumbent upon the responsible firearms owner to document serial numbers and other significant information and to retain such information in a safe location for use in the event their firearm is ever stolen. Two tools that can facilitate this are:
- BATFE’s Personal Firearms Record, a pamphlet-sized document with space to record critical information about each firearm owned and intended to be stored in a safe location such as a safety deposit box or in-home safe. A PDF of this document suitable for printing may be downloaded here, or a hardcopy version can be ordered directly from BATFE from their website.
- An Enhanced Personal Firearms Record, with space for photos and additional details. A template for this document in Microsoft Word may be downloaded here.
Whichever of these you choose, please keep it current and in a safe place – or, better yet, multiple copies in several safe places.
Reporting a Stolen Firearm
While only a few states that require stolen firearms are reported to law enforcement (again, Georgia is not one of them), responsible firearms owners should immediately report stolen firearms to law enforcement:
- To the local police department, as part of a theft incident report. Make certain the responding officers clearly understand a firearm has been stolen even if it is only one of many items missing. Make certain the responding officer includes a description of the stolen firearm as well as the serial number and any other unique descriptors in the police report, and follow up a few days after the police report is issued to make certain the stolen firearm has been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.
- Directly to BATFE, via their Stolen Firearms Hotline at (888) 930-9275. Doing so will help ensure your stolen firearm is entered into the NCIC database and will put information about your stolen firearm into the hands of law enforcement agencies across the country who may recover it at a later time. There is no legal requirement the author is aware of to report stolen firearms to BATFE unless you are a Type 01 or 03 Federal Firearms Licensee or the stolen firearm is a Title II weapon. (You will understand what these terms mean if you are or if it is.)
A number of websites (HotGunz, FirearmFax, etc.) that allow the public to enter and search records of stolen firearms have emerged over the past few years. However, the veracity and value of such websites has yet to be determined. Please take the time to understand and verify these sites before using them. If you do choose to use them, keep in mind they are not a substitute for reporting the theft to law enforcement.
Filing A Claim For Your Stolen Firearm With Your Insurance Company
Before filing a claim for a stolen firearm with your insurance company, take the time to review your policy documents carefully to determine that firearms are covered by the policy and that the ownership or theft of firearms will not in some way impact your insurance coverage. While John Oxendine (Georgia’s Insurance Commissioner) recently stated emphatically that any discrimination of insurance policy or service against individuals simply because they own firearms is illegal, this author’s experience suggests that it occurs anyway. Consider whether the impact of filing a claim on your premium or policy will exceed the potential monies recovered.
If you are an NRA member, keep in mind that you have $1,000 coverage for stolen firearms as an insurance benefit. Contact the NRA to file a claim. (Please note this is provided for information only and is not an endorsement of the NRA or membership.)
What To Expect If Your Firearm Is Recovered
In the event your stolen firearm is recovered, you likely will be notified by the law enforcement agency to which you reported the theft, however, you may also be contacted directly by the recovering law enforcement agency. Depending on the circumstances of the recovery, your firearm may be returned to you immediately, at some point in the future, or not at all:
- Your stolen firearm is evidence of at least one crime – the original theft – and so may be held for use as evidence in any subsequent prosecution.
- If your firearm was subsequently used in the commission of another crime, it may also be held for use of evidence in that subsequent prosecution.
- Some law enforcement agencies have individual policies regarding the process and timetable for the return of stolen firearms.
- Some jurisdictions simply do not return firearms once they come into the possession of law enforcement, regardless of the circumstances – they are held indefinitely or destroyed.
In short, don’t expect that your firearm will be returned to you any time soon if it is recovered following a theft. The author is aware of one instance in which BATFE recovered a stolen firearm as part of a black-market arms trading investigation and had to be sued before they would agree to return the firearm even after the prosecution of the case was completed. The author is aware of a second instance where a firearm owned by a retired law enforcement officer was stolen, recovered by the same agency from which he retired, and destroyed rather than returned under department policy.
The Bottom Line
The best possible scenario is to take every possible action to prevent a firearm from being stolen in the first place. However, it is impossible to guarantee such theft will never occur. As such, firearms owners should make reasonable preparations to assist law enforcement recover their firearm and facilitate prosecution of the criminals who stole it. In these circumstances, a little preparation can go a long way – and is an obligation of responsible firearms ownership.