Support found for responding to stolen gun problems in Nebraska

Guns taken during a drug arrest made by Nebraska State Patrol. (Photo: NSP)
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October 18, 2019 - 6:45am

Stolen guns, especially those taken from unlocked vehicles, remain a frustration for police, hoping to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals. 

David Loos and Shaun Turner (Photo: Scotts Bluff County Sheriff)

Excerpt detailing some of the weapons seized in an 8-page search warrant inventory filed as part of the criminal charges against David Loos.

The city of Lincoln hopes focusing on responsible storage of guns is one way to reduce thefts and get theft reports to police as quickly as possible.  

It's a concern raised by law enforcement across the state. 

Last year, a few days before Christmas, armed officers with W.I.N.G. (Western Nebraska Intelligence and Narcotics Group) moved in on a farm sixteen miles from the Wyoming border. An informant for the multi-police agency task force claimed there meth was being trafficked out of the farmstead owned by David Loos of Mitchell.

Police turned up about half a pound of the drug during the raid. A bigger surprise for the officers was the 47 guns they found. WING commander Cody Potthast said most did not appear to be the property of Loos and another man living on the farm, Shawn Turner. 

"To see that quantity of firearms is huge" for a WING operation, Potthast told N.E.T. News. It was even more surprising for the officers to discover serial numbers on the weapons confirmed eight of the 30 had been stolen.

follow-up raid at the Loos residence found another loaded handgun and a smaller quantity of meth, leading to additional charges against Loos.

"It was a very good find, and the officers did a really good job," Potthast said.

The number of guns in the panhandle raid was unusual, but it is a routine occurrence. Law enforcement often finds weapons during arrests they are unable to trace back to an owner. 

"Most gun owners don't have a tendency to write down the serial numbers of their firearms when they purchase them and store them in a safe spot," Potthast said.

In response, some communities are encouraging or even adding some legal pressure on gun owners to protect their weapons from theft.

Lincoln Crimestoppers Facebook post requesting information about a weapon stolen from a car in July 2019.

At a 2019 Lincoln City Council Meeting, Chief Bliemeister shares data about gun thefts from vehicles in the city. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)

Earlier this year, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird released recommendations from a gun safety task force established by her predecessor. The mission of the group was to "examine strategies to reduce access to firearms by children and increase the safe storage of firearms."

Two city council members advanced changes in city law. One would require those in the city to report a stolen firearm within 48 hours. A second mandated secure storage of guns in unattended vehicles. 

City Council member Roy Christiansen decided to advance the safe storage ordinance after hearing data about stolen weapons.

"We have a number of guns stolen from vehicles every year, and about half of those weapons are ending up in the hands of teenagers," Christensen said. "That's a big issue."

At a Lincoln City Council meeting in September, Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister provided information about the number of stolen weapons reported to the police. Since 2014 the number of thefts remained stable. When the chief displayed a chart of just guns stolen from vehicles, one council member blurted out, "oh my goodness!" 

"I was pretty shocked," Council Chair Jane Raybould said later.

The chart showed a sizable increase over five years. Eighteen guns were reported stolen in 2014. By 2017 the number had jumped to 40 missing firearms. 

Bliemeister found a reason for optimism in reports filed last year.

"You can see a good change in the trend line, right?" he said, gesturing to the updated chart. "So from '14, '15, '16, '17, you see an increase (and) a pretty good decrease in 2018."

The police chief speculated the decrease in thefts could be the result of a public information campaign, highlighted on social media as #9pmRoutine, encouraging people to check and lock their cars before bedtime. 

"It creates a mindset of prevention," Bliemeister said. "People are taking ownership of their own safety and security, combined with enforcement efforts. That's how we're going to try and prevent not only mass casualty events (and) crimes of violence but suicide."

Another approach, endorsed by Lincoln Police, is a change in city law proposed by Council Chair Raybould. It requires people to report their weapons stolen within 48 hours. There's a similar requirement in Nebraska State law, but Raybould wanted stronger language.

"It all boils down to the word mandatory," Raybould said. She explained that in the state statute, the word used is "should." Current state law considers reporting a stolen gun, "a recommended practice that the State of Nebraska asks law-abiding gun owners to comply with."

"In the City of Lincoln we are saying you 'shall' do it," Raybould told N.E.T. News.

A requirement for mandatory reporting found opposition from those cautious of any regulation of gun ownership. At the September hearing, Lincoln citizen Amy Weimer testified against the change, saying it "is an unneeded, feel-good measure that blames the victim."

The mandatory reporting ordinance passed a week later after it was amended, so gun owners no longer needed to provide police with detailed information about thefts.

Council member Roy Christensen said creating standards for safe handling and storage of firearms is "an issue that can be addressed without violating people's rights." He also authored an ordinance aimed at gun safety.

Christiansen proposed requiring guns to be secured in unattended vehicles using locked storage boxes or specially reinforced bags.

"If a weapon were left unattended in a vehicle that weapon (must) be locked or in some kind of a hardened case," Christensen told N.E.T. News. "That is the gist of it."

The safe storage law went through a re-write to better define how rifles and larger weapons would be secured. It's expected to up for a vote later in October.

The discussion about firearm safety reflects a change in the debate about guns, according to Christensen.

"Having that weapon stolen or having it used in a violent act are apparently legitimate concerns these days," he said. "Our culture has shifted, and with that changing culture, I think it's prudent to at least take a look at how we legislate our relationship with firearms."

Those involved in the discussion went to great pains to note most gun owners are responsible stewards of their weapons. They went on to add they should take the responsibility of recording the firearm serial numbers. 

"You are a victim (if) someone stole your firearm," said Lincoln Council Member Raybould. "You certainly don't want to be a suspect when it comes to if that firearm was used in committing a criminal act."

Last December, after the seizure of guns during the drug task force meth bust, police lacked crucial information making it difficult to trace the weapons back to presumably law-abiding owners.

Had gun owners written down serial numbers at the time they acquired the gun, drug investigator Cody Potthast says his team would have had a better chance of tracking the legal firearms owner.

"Even if they came to us and said (my) Beretta 9mm, is stolen, well, there are thousands of them. If you don't have a serial number, I can't confirm if this was stolen or not."

There is no reliable data on stolen guns for the entire state of Nebraska, but police reports commonly list illegal possession of firearms among the charges filed, especially in drug arrests. 

This summer, Sarpy County had 21 reports of guns stolen out of unlocked vehicles. One gun showed up during the arrest of a man in Omaha carrying drugs. According to court records, the owner of that stolen gun was an Omaha police officer who had left it in his car.



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