N.M. police debut program meant to make it easier to track stolen firearms
A gun owner can provide police with two spent casings, which could help locate a weapon if it's used in a crime
By Robert Nott and Nathan Lederman
The Santa Fe New Mexican
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to tracking stolen firearms, it may all come down to saving a couple of bullet casings.
That's what the Albuquerque Police Department believes will help track and trace lost and stolen guns. On Thursday, the department announced a new program called "Save 2 Casings" to do just that job.
The idea is simple: A gun owner places two spent casings from his firearm in an envelope provided by the department. The owner writes down the make, model, caliber and serial number of the firearm on the envelope. If that firearm is ever lost or stolen, the gun owner can provide law enforcement officials with the two spent casings and information, which could then help locate the weapon if it is used in a crime.
Those casings — usually left behind at the scene of a crime involving firearms — can act as fingerprints of sorts to help police track down the gun and the person who committed the crime, said Nicholas Onken, deputy commander of the Albuquerque Police Department's scientific evidence division.
Using the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, a national database of ballistics evidence from crimes, the department can "create leads for our investigators to potentially track down the firearm and hopefully eventually track down the individual who is committing those crimes with the gun," Onken said.
Regardless of whether stolen guns are used in crimes, data complied by the state Department of Public Safety indicates gun theft is a big deal.
Based on information submitted by 15 law enforcement agencies and the University of New Mexico to the state Department of Public Safety, 390 firearms were reported stolen statewide in 2021.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office had 23 reports of stolen firearms that year, while the Santa Fe Police Department reported 15. Neither was part of the data compiled the Department of Public Safety.
Of the departments that reported this data, Las Cruces had the most stolen guns in 2021: 151.
"We're trending in that same direction and possibly even more this year," said Danny Trujillo, a spokesman for the Las Cruces Police Department.
Case in point: Just over two weeks ago, a thief stole more than two dozen guns from a gun store in Las Cruces. Surveillance video images show the suspect, a man, entering the business through a back door. He stole rifles, shotguns and revolvers.
Revolvers are the most commonly stolen firearms, Trujillo said.
"It's very likely that any stolen firearm will be used in the commission of a violent crime," Trujillo said. He said if criminals do not use the guns in crimes, they sell them — often to other criminals, who may use them in future crimes.
New Mexico State Police said 106 of the 390 guns included in the state Department of Public Safety data, obtained through a public records request, were used in crimes in calendar year 2021.
Santa Fe law enforcement officials could not say how many stolen guns were used in crimes in 2021.
Tracking those weapons often is difficult for a number of reasons, including the fact most criminals file off the serial number of the firearm, said state police spokesman Ray Wilson.
As a result, he said, many of those stolen firearms may "never be seen again."
In addition, New Mexico has no laws in place requiring gun owners to report theft of their firearms, though Trujillo said most responsible gun owners do so.
But he added some owners don't know the serial number or even have a valid description of the gun. His advice: Take photos of the firearm and write down the make, model and serial number and keep that information separate from where you store the gun.
Most guns, local law enforcement officials say, are taken from homes or vehicles during break-ins. Capt. Aaron Ortiz of the Santa Fe Police Department said in all the cases involving reported stolen guns in the city, it was "either a burglary of a motor vehicle where they break a window and open a door that is unlocked and they take a gun that was within that vehicle ... [or] break into a house and take firearms within the house."
There's little to deter those who've already been convicted of felonies from taking those firearms, said Rep. Bill Rehm, R- Albuquerque, a retired police officer who has repeatedly pushed to toughen penalties on criminals using firearms in crimes and repeat offenders.
"Felons don't care [about stealing guns]; they are all dealing in stolen guns," Rehm said. "They're not afraid of additional charges."
A 2019 U.S. Department of Justice report said 21 percent of state and federal prisoners nationwide reported possessing or carrying a firearm when committing the crime that put them behind bars.
More than one in eight of all prisoners used that firearm by showing, pointing or discharging it during the offense for which they were imprisoned, the report said.
Onken said the new "Save 2 Casings" program does not require or expect gun owners to provide the data about their gun until after it has been stolen or lost.
He said among other goals, that data can help "alleviate any accusations" toward the legal gun owner if a crime is committed with his or her firearm.
He said his agency hopes the new program provides "another tool that could help reduce crime in the metro area and bring attention back to the proper ways to secure a firearm."
He recommends gun owners keep firearms in lockboxes or storage safes at home and a lockbox bolted to the body of a vehicle if it's in the car or truck.
Las Cruces' Trujillo said his agency is "looking at" how the 2 Casings initiative plays out, which, he said, sounds like "a good program."
He said having even one stolen gun used in a crime is "one too many. It's a very sad situation we're in right now that so many firearms are being stolen and then used in the commission of a crime."
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