Locked and Looted: Carolinas lead country in thefts from gun dealers, pawn shops

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – More guns are stolen in the Carolinas than anywhere else in the country.

In 2016, more than 930 firearms were stolen from gun dealers and pawn shops that hold federal firearm licenses in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Over 200 of those guns were taken from a Grand Strand area gun shop.

The theft from Five Star Guns in Longs happened during October's Hurricane Matthew.

"It was completely ransacked," said Larry Williams, manager of Five Star Guns. "All the glass was broken. There was bleach poured everywhere, all over the product. The inventory that was left behind, there was bleach poured on it. The bleach had eaten away at the finishes. There was a lot of damage. There was no power to the building of course. It was really dark and dusty. It looked like a storm blew through. Essentially, it was bad."

Williams remembered what it was like to walk into the store for the first time after Matthew hit, only to find the store was missing over 220 guns.

"Why, why would we think that our security system wouldn't operate or function properly, everything showed that it would," Williams said. Or our backup system wouldn't work properly. Everything showed that it would."

In addition to the security system, Williams said the doors weighed 600 pounds apiece. He was left to ponder why all of it failed.

It didn't take long for Williams to realized just what the suspects were looking for – handguns. The fear then became where would the weapons ultimately end up.

"We are friends with a lot of our police officers. We like our police officers, like most people probably do," Williams said. "And that was the concern, No. 1, is that law enforcement is going to have first contact with these firearms on a traffic stop, or a domestic violence encounter, and then, of course, secondly, we live in the area. This is our home, as it is yours. So the concern is also for our community, our family and friends as well. It was a big concern, still is today."

According to Horry County police, of the more than 200 guns stolen, only 10 have so far been recovered.

This spike in firearm thefts led the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to send a letter to all gun dealers in North Carolina and South Carolina in November 2016, which stated the agency is aggressively addressing an increase in burglaries and armed robberies in the region.

While also alerting gun shop owners, investigations revealed that thieves are spending a considerable amount of time casing shops and finding weaknesses in their security systems.

Yonnie Waknine, a co-owner of Elite Firearms, had a very close call of his own just a few weeks ago.

Would-be burglars gained entry to the store through its back door in the middle of the night.

That's as far as they got before the store's security company tipped off the owners.

"(They) let me know that somebody was at the back door and they were trying to get in and that's not a normal routine for us to enter," Waknine said. "We always come in through the front so we can disarm the security system. So we knew something was wrong in the matter of seconds and were here in a matter of seconds."

Waknine said if someone did break in, they'd have another security measure to get through; the guns at Elite Firearms are locked up every night.

"You just never know. If somebody really truly wants to get in, they will find a way to get in," he said. "I just want to make it harder for them to get to the important things."

Williams, however, thinks the issue goes well beyond security regulations.

"How about the bad guy? What about the criminal? What about our court system?" he said. "Maybe we should have more regulation on that. The folks that broke into our business, they are being charged with burglary second, which is the same as breaking into a home during the day time, or a business at night, any business at night."

According to the ATF, there were nearly 90 reports of burglaries and robberies of FFLs in the Carolinas this past calendar year.

The agency believes firearms dealers can play a vital role in keeping guns out of the wrong hands by maintaining strong security measures.

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