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Put that gun away

On May 22, a Medford homeowner on North Groveland Avenue reported a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard pistol stolen from his vehicle. On Aug. 11, another resident reported a rifle stolen from a vehicle in the 1100 block of Skeeters Lane. On Aug. 27, yet another person reported that two .40-caliber Glock 22 pistols had been taken from a vehicle.

While gun-theft numbers are down overall across Jackson County, local law enforcement agencies say the crime is still too common and often can be avoided.

"The victims are making it too easy for the criminals," says Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau.

Police say many of the firearms stolen in the valley are taken from personal vehicles. Most are handguns, although in recent years police have seen everything from hunting rifles to AR-15s purloined from cars overnight.

"I think people are more apt to leave a handgun in their vehicle than a long gun," says Jackson County sheriff's Lt. Nate Sickler, explaining that many people wrongly believe that hiding the gun in the glove box or console is enough to keep thieves from breaking in for it. Most car break-ins, he says, are crimes of opportunity in which the thief doesn't necessarily know what he'll find.

Still, Sickler says it's far from the only method in which guns are stolen, citing home burglaries as another. "I couldn't say it occurs more in the county than burglary itself," he says.

According to Medford police's Records Division, 51 firearms have been reported stolen so far in 2015, compared with 73 this time last year. Sickler says his agency has taken theft reports for 76 firearms to date this year, 155 in all of 2014. "It looks like we're down slightly (year to date)," he says. 

In neighboring Josephine County, on the other hand, gun thefts have climbed from 63 in 2013 to 106 as of mid-August this year, according to a recent report by the Grants Pass Daily Courier. 

A 2013 report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — the most current nationwide numbers available — shows 2,367 guns were reported stolen by Oregonians in 2012 and another 124 were reported as "lost." Another 17 were reported stolen from federally licensed dealers in the state.

Sickler says firearms stolen in Jackson County are just as likely to be traded or sold within the region as outside the area.

"I would say a lot of the guns are taken out of the county, but we recover a lot within the county as well," he says, adding he doesn't have exact numbers. "Fifty-50ish, I would say."

Budreau agrees, saying firearms are seen as a valuable commodity on the local black market. 

The guns that do leave the Rogue Valley don't seem to be going that far. ATF's 2012 gun-trace report showed that out of 2,564 traceable firearms recovered in criminal cases in Oregon that year, 1,851 of them were first purchased within the state. 

Budreau says it's critical to record the serial numbers of all your firearms in case they're stolen, but taking simple precautions can help assure they stay in your possession.

Sickler says homeowners' best defense against potential burglars is making firearms a "hardened target."

"A big safe is going to be ideal," he says, noting that the difficulty of opening a safe can help deter would-be gun thieves. 

Budreau says many people don't lock up firearms they keep for self-defense, fearing they won't be able to access them in the event of a home invasion. But he says experience shows there's almost always time to unlock the safe before a gun is needed. Home invasion is "such an incredibly rare event," he says.

Unlike some other states, Oregon has no law specifically targeted at gun owners who fail to secure their firearms. "The only (criminal law) that would apply is if there was some gross negligence," Budreau says, using the example of an adult leaving a loaded firearm where a child accessed it and caused injury or death.

Police also advise gun owners to make sure their gun safes are secure.

"A lot of the gun safes we've seen are not bolted down," Budreau says, explaining that burglars simply will remove the safe from the home and force it open at their leisure. He says the quality of the safe itself is also worth considering.

"It's worth it to spend a little bit more to not be a victim whatsoever," he says. 

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

Medford police Chief Tim George displays an assortment of stolen firearms found during a September 2013 drug raid. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell