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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Strengthen gun store security to close off armories for criminals

Published Jan. 13, 2017

The Florida Legislature made it illegal in 1989 for an adult to leave a firearm within reach of a child. It was the rare example of a courageous response to the devastation of gun violence from a body generally more interested in eliminating restrictions on carrying and using firearms. The powerful gun lobby didn't even resist. The measure served as a model for other states. It is now time to expand that move toward responsible gun ownership by requiring those who sell firearms to protect them so they won't serve as virtual armories for Florida's criminals.

Twice in one year, thieves broke into Tampa gun stores and made off with about 40 guns each time. Soon after the most recent break-in, Nov. 29, one of the guns was found with a teenager suspected in the shooting death of an Orlando mother as she sat in her car with her child.

Then last week, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd took to his soapbox to scold store owners who shirk the "ethical and moral responsibility to secure their guns." Judd was disgusted at a theft — again, about 40 firearms — from Rapture Guns & Knives in Lakeland, a glass-fronted, strip-center store whose owner had just been warned by detectives about security.

Judd, after declaring his own libertarian leanings, questioned why the free market hasn't moved to hold gun store owners accountable for shoddy security practices. How do they get insurance, for example, or business loans?

There is, in fact, little evidence the market is introducing accountability. There were hopes for this when Walmart, the nation's largest gun retailer, adopted standards in 2008 that included videotaping firearm transactions, requiring background checks for employees handling guns, even tracing guns sold by the company that are later linked to crimes.

Eight years later, according to the pro-gun control web publication The Trace, Walmart stands alone among major retailers in adopting this voluntary Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership. What's more, Walmart's policies, the website notes, have little influence on the nation's thousands of independent gun stores.

Lawmakers in nine states have filled the gap by requiring that firearms dealers employ security measures to reduce the risk of theft, according to the California-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. They are Alabama, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. A move is afoot, too, in Illinois, where Chicago has been rocked by murders committed with guns from outside the city.

The measures vary by state and include a ban on the display of firearms; standards for storage of firearms, like locking them in a safe overnight; burglar alarms connected directly to the local police department; and a state-approved theft detection and prevention system.

Florida should take steps like these, too, in the same way the Sunshine State and all states have taken steps to protect the public from other products and materials that pose a serious threat to public safety.

Left to their own devices, some gun store owners offer an irresistible target to thieves. In one of the Tampa thefts, disturbing in its efficiency, a stolen truck crashed through the store's glass facade and as many as a dozen people wearing hooded sweatshirts cleaned the place out. In the other, a block wall proved no match for a group of thieves with sledgehammers.

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Some of the store owners in the local thefts told investigators and the Tampa Bay Times that it would be impractical and expensive to gather up their entire inventory and move it into a safe each night. Perhaps, then, they should consider changing to a less hazardous product. Or as one of the victims finally resolved to do, just close the retail operation.

Securing gun stores is not on the ambitious agenda of gun-control advocates for the legislative session opening March 7, as is a move to strengthen the child-protection measure. But it's hard to imagine a public policy move that can do more to reduce the sadly routine harm that guns do in Florida.

And, like the child-protection measure, securing gun stores should transcend all the divisive debates over Second Amendment rights. It would take away nothing from those who lawfully own and use guns. For criminals, it would take away an alarmingly reliable resource.

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