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Earlier this year, two Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputies approached a man lying on the grass near the agency’s headquarters.
When the deputies asked the man — later identified as Joshua Michael Johnson — to move, an ammunition magazine fell out of his pants. In an ensuing struggle to get Johnson handcuffed, he fired a weapon, prompting an April 10 gunfight that authorities said ended with Johnson dead and a deputy losing an eye. Another deputy was grazed.
But the gun Johnson fired was not his. The weapon was stolen from an unlocked car less than a month earlier, along with an AR-style rifle and another handgun, authorities said.
Data from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center shows a surge in Utah gun thefts in recent years. Rates rose by nearly 48% from 2011 to 2020, the data indicates, while homicides involving firearms in the state have almost tripled. The trend aligned with a recent spike in gun purchases, which shattered Utah records in 2020.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced in October that the fatal police shooting of Johnson was legally justified. At the time, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera implored gun owners to better secure their firearms.
“Please keep your firearms locked up,” Rivera said. “Don’t let these individuals steal them and use them. If they’re willing to use them against a police officer, they are going to use them against our communities.”
Where most gun thefts occur
In 2020′s record-breaking year for firearm purchases, 1,019 guns were reported stolen in Utah, compared to the 929 guns reported stolen in 2019, FBI data shows. Officials say these stolen firearms often end up being used in crimes or found on the street with individuals who aren’t allowed to own guns.
Although data on stolen guns used in crimes was not readily available, Salt Lake County experienced one of the state’s highest spikes in firearm thefts this year, jumping from 266 reported thefts in all of 2019 to 542 as of Nov. 3. Unified Police’s metro gang unit also seized 120 firearms as of October 2021 — and many of them were stolen, Rivera said.
“We know we’re going to see those guns out on the street,” Rivera said of stolen guns. “We are struggling out there with these violent crimes, and we don’t want to see any more victims.”
Gill aimed to curb gun violence in October, when he announced a moratorium on plea deals for gun-related crimes. When it comes to gun thefts, he said, he is concerned about vehicle burglaries.
Statewide, thefts from vehicles rose by about 13% from 2011 to 2020. But the value of that reported stolen property also skyrocketed — from about $9.5 million to over $17.9 million.
The state’s increase in gun thefts is likely due to its population boom and Utah’s “gun culture,” since hunting and other firearm-based activities are popular in the area, said Brad Engelbert, assistant special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
According to the FBI’s yearly data on gun thefts, the crime is most commonly reported in the state’s five most populated counties — Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber and Washington. Salt Lake County has remained at the top of the list each year since 2011.
“Things like the pandemic and people being home more may play a role,” Engelbert said. “I think, unfortunately, we’ve seen as a national trend, just folks not using all due caution to secure their firearms. … These are not uncommon things.”
Utah’s southeast corner struggles with stolen guns
Although Utah’s most populated counties typically report the highest rates of gun thefts, San Juan County bucks this trend.
Located in the southeastern corner of the state, the county is home to Bears Ears National Monument, Canyonlands National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument. But this county of fewer than 15,000 people has recorded 293 stolen guns in the past 10 years — sixth on the list of Utah’s 29 counties.
San Juan County Sheriff Jason Torgerson said the county has many gun owners, which may contribute to the comparatively high amount of guns stolen among its relatively small population. In a few cases through the years, several guns were stolen at once, he said.
“We’re also one of the communities where we don’t lock our vehicles up — we leave guns in vehicles, and we don’t lock them up,” Torgerson said. “As much as we keep asking the citizens, ‘Lock up your vehicles’ ... [guns] end up getting stolen. So a lot of it’s that.”
Even with San Juan’s elevated amount of gun thefts, Torgerson said gun crimes haven’t been a significant problem for the area, which he described as “quiet and safe.” And in San Juan County, he added, stolen guns aren’t often recovered at local crime scenes.
Cracking down on ‘crime guns’
People who commit a crime to obtain a firearm often use those firearms in other crimes, Engelbert, with the ATF, said. Law enforcement agencies call these firearms “crime guns.”
Sheriff Rivera said law enforcement agencies can’t decrease gun thefts on their own. Keeping guns out of criminals’ hands has to be a community effort, she said, and gun owners can do their part by keeping track of their weapons and locking them up inside their homes.
“There’s a role they can play; there’s a role that we can play,” Gill said. “But it’s going to be a partnership.”
Right now, Utah does not have safe storage laws, which limit firearm access to the intended owner. Some require that gun owners lock their stored weapons, or require that a locking device accompany the sale of a firearm. Whether that changes, Gill said, is up to the Legislature.
In 2018, Gill did not prosecute a Utah woman who left a loaded handgun on a diaper-changing table in a restroom near a children’s play area at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium. When it was discovered, prosecutors said one round was in the gun’s firing chamber and the safety was off.
At the time, Gill said the incident did not meet the law’s standard to warrant charges: The woman didn’t knowingly abandon the gun in the restroom, so prosecutors couldn’t build a case for reckless endangerment.
A 2019 bill from Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, intended to create criminal penalties against people who leave their guns unsecured, giving a minor or restricted person access to the firearm. The proposed penalties would have applied only if someone was harmed by the firearm. The measure was tabled.
The same year, Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Midvale, attempted to pass legislation that could have limited access to firearms. His bill was named Lauren’s Law, after University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, who was killed by a convicted felon with a borrowed gun.
The measure was designed to discourage people from illegally loaning out their guns by opening the way for lawsuits to be filed against individuals whose borrowed firearms were then used in a felony. But the effort failed to advance in 2019 and again in 2020, after lawmakers concluded that it could be used to punish law-abiding gun owners.
“As someone who’s worked on gun legislation, both successful and not, you have to take really, really small incremental steps,” Stoddard said. “I’ve heard repeatedly, ‘Instead of punishing, we should encourage,’ but at some point, I think we’ve got to increase awareness on both sides — both safe storage, as well as penalties for gun theft.”
According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the only state that generally requires that all firearms be locked when stored is Massachusetts.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, has already passed legislation that offers firearm owners free trigger locks and up to a $200 rebate on gun safes. The measures are intended to lower youth suicide rates, but also thwart gun thefts, he said, though the locks and safes are not required.
For now, Gill said, at least one thing the community can do is safely lock away their guns.
“This is not about a Second Amendment issue,” he said, noting that he supports the Second Amendment and carries a gun. “But I think we have a responsibility to be safe gun owners.”
— Tribune reporter Jessica Miller contributed to this report.