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Police unable to trace Coe's stolen guns

Police have been unable to trace two guns stolen from Hillsborough County State Attorney Harry Lee Coe because he never gave them the serial numbers, investigators said Tuesday.

A handgun was stolen from Coe's car in October 1994 and another in February. After the first theft, Coe said he would call police with the serial number but never did. After the second, he told police he did not have the serial number.

Every firearm sold at a gun shop carries a serial number kept by the store so the weapon can be traced. The serial number is also written on a customer's receipt.

Not having a gun's serial number is "stupid," said Bob Northrop of Tampa Police Department's Crime Prevention Unit.

"That gun without the serial number is untraceable," he said. "We cannot retrieve that gun."

The Times reported Tuesday that Coe has had two handguns stolen from his car in the past two years and has not had a valid concealed weapons permit for three years.

That report sparked a debate among law enforcement officials and gun enthusiasts about whether Coe was required to carry a permit and whether he acted responsibly in leaving guns in his car.

Florida law enforcement officers do not need concealed weapons permits while on duty, according to state law. The first theft occurred while Coe's car was parked outside his South Tampa home. It is unclear what Coe was doing during the second theft. He declined to comment.

Pinellas County State Attorney Bernie McCabe said the key issue is whether Coe was operating within his duties: "He can say whether it's okay according to his own definition: He's a full-time state attorney, a 24-hour state attorney. He can say that if he wants to."

The law aside, gun enthusiasts at a local range thought it was irresponsible for Coe to leave a gun in his car, especially after one had been stolen. Coe's car was locked during the 1994 theft and unlocked during the second, police say.

"It was not very smart," said Ernest Unanue, 54, of Dunedin, who was getting information for a gun safety course at Shooting Sports in Tampa.

"He wasn't thinking," said Brian Burback, 24, a police officer in the Sumter County community of Center Hill. "Now we'll have one more gun on the street."

A police officer could face discipline if a gun were stolen from his unlocked car, Northrop said. "If the gun belongs to the department, he'd be nailed.

"If it was his own gun, legally, it would be okay," he said. "Ethically, it would be absolutely asinine. Here at the station we believe you should never leave a gun inside of your car, if at all possible."