As Hurricane Matthew raged, thieves near Myrtle Beach ignored the pounding rain and pulled open a gun shop’s door by attaching a chain to it from the back of a vehicle.
Then they broke through a glass door and made off with about 230 handguns, semi-automatic rifles and other weapons last month.
It was one of the biggest firearms heists ever from a Carolinas gun dealer, federal authorities said.
A couple weeks later, someone plowed a stolen SUV into a Concord gun shop and grabbed 16 handguns. Other criminals tried the same thing at gun shops in Charlotte, Fort Mill, S.C., and elsewhere in the region over the past few months.
So far this year, about 900 guns have been stolen from federally licensed firearms retailers in North and South Carolina — a record pace. That’s more than the states’ combined total for the previous two years, data show.
In fact, more guns have been stolen in the Carolinas this year than any other field division in the country covered by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, agency spokesman Corey Ray said.
“We’ve not seen totals like this before,” he said.
It’s not known if any of the crimes are connected. Ray said many of the firearms stolen in the Carolinas will likely end up in what’s called “the Iron Pipeline,” and headed to criminals in northeast states where more restrictive laws make it harder to obtain guns.
In response to the increased thefts, the local ATF has stepped up its collaboration with other law enforcement agencies as well as an industry trade group. And the ATF is reaching out to gun stores, pawn shops and other places licensed to sell guns to provide tips on improving security measures.
It’s hard to determine what is driving the trend, Ray said. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police declined to make an officer available to discuss the spike in gun thefts.
But some gun dealers said social media reports about the thefts have led to copy-cat crimes. Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, said he first noticed an increase about nine months ago all over the Carolinas.
That’s when Crime Stoppers of Houston posted videos of a group of men in hoodies using a pick-up truck and a chain to rip the door off a gun shop and then dart inside to help themselves to the weapons. The videos were viewed more than 500,000 times on the Crime Stoppers’ YouTube channel, and also were featured on a network news broadcast.
“Once that started, we immediately saw others. Then our store got hit with a vehicle” about eight months ago, Hyatt said. The crooks rammed a steel door and wall near an alley with a small, stolen vehicle but were unable to get inside the store.
CMPD charged six people in that case as well as in another attempted gun shop break-in and 10 other related auto thefts and break-ins. The suspects ranged in age from 14 to 19.
Hyatt said there are already concrete barriers around his store, and he spent “quite a bit of money” to upgrade the security systems after the attempted break-in.
“What’s happening now instead of an isolated case, you have one incident, then you’ve got a hundred copycats,” Hyatt said. “It’s a whole different ballgame.”
A sickening feeling
Last year, 241 guns were reported stolen from licensed retailers in North Carolina, and another 128 from South Carolina, the ATF said. The agency could not yet say each state’s total for the 900 guns stolen this year.
The number of guns stolen during the hurricane from Dan Huneycutt’s Five Star Guns in Longs, S.C., was more than the total for any single year in South Carolina in at least the past four years.
It’s really sickening that someone can do something like that.
Dan Huneycutt, whose S.C. gun store had about 230 weapons stolen during Hurricane Matthew
During the Oct. 8 storm, Huneycutt said, he couldn’t leave his house because of the flooded roads, powerful winds and downed trees.
After the power went out, he no longer could monitor the store’s security cameras, and back-up batteries for the shop’s security system died several hours later. The thieves had all night to plunder the store.
“It’s really sickening that someone can do something like that,” Huneycutt said, especially in the middle of a hurricane. He promised that during the next storm there will be someone inside the shop. “It won’t happen again.”
He opened Five Star Guns about 14 months ago as a retirement hobby, and estimated the retail value of the missing guns to be about $250,000. More than 150 handguns and 35 or more semi-automatic weapons were among the weapons stolen, according to a police report. A number of collector guns also went missing.
A few guns were recovered but there have been no major breaks in the case, Horry County police spokesman Lt. Raul Denis said. “They basically looted the place,” he said, “and stole a ton of guns.”
Early on Oct. 21, someone plowed a stolen Mercedes SUV into the side of Eagle Guns & Range in Concord.
They used it “like a battering ram” to smash through a wood door, steel door and steel gate then grabbed 16 handguns, store vice president Dustin Helms said.
Concord police are continuing to investigate and also have been in touch with other agencies dealing with similar crimes, Capt. Bobby Ledwell said.
Helms estimated the store damages and loss of guns to be about $20,000. After the theft, Eagle Guns installed nearly a dozen steel pipes filled with concrete around the building to stop anyone else from battering it. Leaning on one of the pipes, Helms said, “I don’t think it’s going to happen again.”
He believes that attention about the rise in gun thefts is also driving some of the crime.
“The increase is super terrible,” Helms said. “We definitely gotta find some way to get it stopped. As soon as possible.”