Salt Lake County police data shows more firearms stolen, most not recovered

SALT LAKE COUNTY— Last April, two Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputies were shot in the head. Months later, two police officers were injured in a deadly confrontation in Taylorsville. The year before, a mother was murdered in Millcreek.

Investigators say all three violent incidents involved a firearm that was stolen from a car or home in Utah.

Investigators believe Linda Nemelka, 57, was killed with a stolen weapon during a burglary.

“The first point of impact is in the community, because they get used to [the] commission of crimes against citizens,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said.

Gill, along with law enforcement officials in Salt Lake County, publicly implore legitimate gun owners to secure their firearms.

Data reveals rise in gun thefts

“It’s very important that we work to prevent theft in the first place,” the Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Joshua Ashdown.

KSL investigators reviewed department data from the past three years and found a 58% increase in reports of stolen weapons from 2019 (196) to 2020 (310), with only a slight drop in 2021.

Figures show 294 firearms were stolen mostly from homes and cars in Salt Lake City last year, which Ashdown considers “pretty high”.

The data also shows that a significant number of firearms reported stolen remain unaccounted for. A quarter of guns reported to the department as stolen in 2019 were recovered. In 2021, that number has dropped to 17%.

“If a gun is stolen, it’s usually stolen by someone with nefarious means and intentions,” Ashdown said. “And we don’t know where that gun is going to end up.”

KSL investigators requested data from 11 other Salt Lake County police departments and found that only five departments had data on firearm thefts and recoveries available for the entire past three years.

Data provided by the Sandy, West Valley City, South Salt Lake, West Jordan and Murray police departments show similar trends to those shown in data from the Salt Lake City Police Department.

The five departments’ combined total lost and stolen firearms reports show a 58% increase from 2019 to 2020 and a 9% increase from 2020 to 2021. And the departments’ reports of firearms recovered represent only 25% of those who were stolen.

Correlation between gun theft and crime

Outside of typical police work, Ashdown said there was little law enforcement could do to recover guns once they were stolen.

“There is a high probability that when we recover a firearm, it ends up on someone who could be involved in a crime or be arrested,” he said.

Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Joshua Ashdown.

Gill, who has publicly promised his office will more aggressively prosecute violent crimes involving firearms, points to information published in the Utah Department of Public Safety’s 2020 Crime in Utah report.

According to the report, there were 93 homicides in Utah in 2020, a 44% increase from the previous year. A gun was used in 67% of homicides in 2020, up from 55% in 2019. And Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) data shows a 48% increase in background checks for gun purchases in Utah from 2019 to 2020.

“We were seeing this correlation between the proliferation of guns, vehicle thefts and home burglaries, and the improper storage of those guns, ultimately ending up in violent crime,” Gill said.

More guns on the market

Arms dealers also report an increase in sales over the same period.

“2019 was normal, 2020 was high, 2021 was very high and we’re leveling off a bit right now,” Amanda Black, CEO of Ready Gunner told Orem.

Amanda Black is the General Manager of Ready Gunner in Orem, Utah.

Black said he sells to both first-time buyers and longtime gun owners, and most focus on safe handling of their firearm.

“But a lot of people don’t think beyond that and go to the safety side of like, ‘How do I secure this gun? How am I going to keep it safe in my house?’ That kind of stuff , I think, are really

important,” she said, “and should probably be something a little more important in people’s minds.

While officials point to increased gun sales and unsecured firearms as possible factors in Utah’s gun theft problem, Black said she believes the fighting crime should be part of the solution.

“It’s a firearm and the consequences of theft are very serious,” she said. “So of course it’s the responsibility of the gun owner, but we also need to do more, I think, to mitigate the crime that’s going on right now.”

Prevent gun theft

Once a gun is stolen, community members and law enforcement are at risk, Ashdown said.

“As a police service, we can never outpace such a curve,” he said. “That’s why it’s really critical that we ask for a partnership with our community to secure guns in advance.”

Police are asking Utah gun owners to take photos and document the serial numbers of their guns, avoid leaving them in vehicles and keep guns at home in a safe.

“I can’t ask more sincerely than to please document your serial number,” he said. “Don’t leave a gun in your car unsecured, even in a garage.”

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