Littleton to gun store owners: Lock up your firearms at night

Littleton has gone further than any other Colorado community in trying to put an end to brazen smash-and-grab burglaries at gun shops by requiring the businesses to secure their firearms after hours “in a locked safe, locked steel gun cabinet or secured safe room.”

City leaders last week unanimously passed an ordinance in response to increasingly aggressive burglaries of businesses that sell firearms, a problem that has affected numerous towns and cities in the state.

Colorado’s gun stores and pawnshops saw a total of 1,143 guns stolen from 2015 through 2019, according to data kept by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That’s an annual average of nearly 230 guns stolen in the state during that period, ranging from a high of 460 in 2017 to a low of 121 in 2015.

Over the last four years, burglars have targeted gun shops 10 times in Littleton, a suburb of nearly 50,000 south of Denver. They made off with 144 firearms in that time.

In a recent memo, the city said pilfered guns can be “safely assumed” to land in “the hands of other criminals who use them in the commission of further crimes against our community.”

“Despite best efforts (to stop burglaries), the criminals are able to enter and they’re so fast that the last time they were able to grab 52 weapons before we could get there,” Littleton Police Chief Doug Stephens said.

That heist, which included the theft of two machine guns, occurred June 30 at Triple J Armory. The thieves smashed a window shortly after 5 a.m. to gain entry and then did the same to gun display cases inside the store.

Burglars targeted the store three times in 2016 and 2017, ramming a vehicle past a concrete barrier and into the store on one occasion. Triple J’s owner declined to speak to The Denver Post for this story.

Most gun store thefts occur in under three minutes, Stephens said.

“Anything we can do to prevent or delay these criminals from grabbing these weapons gives us time to get to the scene,” the chief said.

But mandating after-hours storage of firearms is a bridge too far for gun rights advocacy group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Executive Director Taylor Rhodes told the Post that the measure is “just another example of government overreach to the nth degree.”

Littleton’s ordinance, Rhodes said, means that gun shop employees will have to spend time after closing — and again at the start of the day — to stow and then display their inventory.

The measure is onerous, he said, and flies in the face of a 2003 state law that bars a local government from prohibiting “the sale, purchase, or possession of a firearm” that is otherwise legal under state and federal law.

“This is gun control because this ordinance infringes on that dealer’s rights,” Rhodes said. “I’m pretty sure if this went to court it would be struck down.”

He said RMGO is considering whether to file a legal challenge to Littleton’s law, which won’t take effect until August. But Littleton City Attorney Reid Betzing thinks the ordinance will stand up to legal scrutiny.

“The city’s ordinance does not prohibit the sale or purchase of firearms,” he said. “The city’s ordinance places reasonable requirements for the safe storage and security of those firearms for the protection of public health, safety and welfare.”

Dubbed the Safe Storage and Security Plan, Littleton’s new law also calls for proper exterior fortification of retail gun shops, including the installation of bollards, break-resistant windows, security bars on windows, metal reinforced doors and reinforced walls.

Only eight states require firearms dealers to use security measures to reduce theft, said Allison Anderman, senior counsel for gun control group Giffords. And fewer still, including California, Minnesota, New Jersey and Illinois, have in place some form of safe storage mandate.

“Gun dealers who are responsible for large numbers of firearms being stolen and entering the criminal market should bear some of the cost of fixing this problem,” she said.

But at what cost, asked Giovanni Galeano, owner of Old Steel Historical Firearms in Littleton. His store has a vast inventory of antique and historic pistols, rifles, muskets, daggers and bayonets, which he largely sells to collectors.

During last week’s City Council meeting, Galeano told council members that it was “not going to be possible” for him to move more than 1,000 items in and out of storage every day. He said having to comply would likely force him to close up shop and leave town.

“It’s almost a museum,” Galeano said of his shop just south of downtown. “If I have to put 1,100 guns in a safe every night, I don’t have a physical way to do it.”

He said buying safes or vaults to store so much inventory would cost him upward of $50,000, and moving them in and out would risk damaging one-of-a-kind weapons that span from the Civil War to World War II.

“If you have a $20,000 musket or a $5,000 Winchester, the damage you can do to your inventory is significant,” Galeano said.

He said his building, a concrete structure in front of which he parks two Humvees to protect the entry, is effectively one big safe room.

“In order to break through my door, you’d have to come with a tank,” he said.

Several Littleton council members expressed sympathy for Galeano and Old Steel, which they acknowledged is not a conventional gun shop and not a top target for thieves. But Councilwoman Kelly Milliman said many of the guns there still function and could be used in a crime.

“To me, a gun is a gun is a gun, whether it was manufactured in the 1940s or ’50s versus 2020 or 2021,” she said. “It’s still a weapon that can be used to harm another individual.”

Betzing, Littleton’s city attorney, said as long as smash-and-grab gun shop thefts continue to occur in Colorado, city leaders will feel a need to respond.

“I would be happy if other jurisdictions used this as a template and improved on it,” he said.

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