Suburban gun shop burglaries raise security issue
Suburban break-ins have some asking if there should be stricter regulations
About 200 firearms were stolen earlier this year in a burglary of Maxon Shooters Supply and Indoor Range in Des Plaines. The break-in has city officials concerned about security measures at the business.
JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer
How did a group of burglars break into a Des Plaines gun shop, swipe more than 200 firearms within about a minute and get away before police could respond?
On the surface, there was little sophistication in the execution of the Jan. 15 burglary at Maxon Shooters Supplies and Indoor Range.
To get inside, masked burglars used a sledgehammer to break through a glass front door and another metal mesh door with safety glass and protective bars. Once in the business, they smashed several glass display cases and grabbed the guns before jumping into an ordinary sedan to escape. The Chicago Police Department's gang investigations division later recovered some of the firearms from a South Side home, leading to the arrest of five teens from Chicago and the South suburbs. Only one, a 17-year-old from Dolton, has been formally charged, but the investigation is ongoing.
While security experts say it's the responsibility of gun shop owners to protect weapons from getting into the wrong hands, there are some who believe stricter regulations are needed at the state level.
The relative ease of the Des Plaines burglary has city officials and law enforcement authorities worried.
"When this break-in happened, it caught everybody by surprise," Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan said. "We were not happy about the ease of the breach of this facility."
Maxon had been burglarized once before years ago in a similar manner. Its owners, Barry and Claudia Levin, did not return calls requesting comment.
Meanwhile, authorities are looking into whether the Des Plaines heist and similar burglaries at nearly a half-dozen other gun shops statewide — Roselle, Salem, Lockport, New Lenox and Tinley Park — are linked to the same crew, said Special Agent Tom Ahern of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The common factor in all the burglaries is that the perpetrators are believed to be in their late teens, Ahern said.
"It's a typical smash and grab," he said. "They get in and out pretty quickly. I'm certain that they would do their surveillance and scope out the security systems (and) what kind of enforcements are on the doors. By the time the alarm company notifies the police, it gives them plenty of time to get away."
Ahern said in most cases the gun shops are doing the best they can to secure their merchandise.
"There's not much more you can do other than have somebody on watch for 24 hours," Ahern said. "They don't want to lose these guns. That's their livelihood. And they don't want these guns ending up in the wrong hands."
There are roughly 750 gun shops in the Chicago area, and about 2,500 firearms dealers statewide.
Yet there are no state or federal regulations on gun shop security other than the Federal Firearms License. Dealers who apply for a license undergo background checks. If everything checks out and they are cleared, dealers must comply with local city ordinances. At present, that is the extent of regulation, Ahern said.
"We can't regulate how they store their weapons," Ahern said. "Our inspectors would do periodic inspections of the licensed dealer to look at their acquisition and disposition books and record-keeping just to make sure that they are not doing something illegal."
One expert suggests that owners could take a variety of security measures to slow burglars down, making thefts less likely.
Proposed legislation that would require gun shops to have alarm systems and video surveillance of all the doors and windows has been referred to the Illinois House Rules Committee. The bill's sponsor is state Rep. Esther Golar, whose 6th District includes Chicago's South Side, where many of the firearms stolen from Des Plaines and other gun shops have ended up. Golar could not be reached for comment.
However, influential lobbyist groups are against increased regulations on gun dealers.
Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said federal licensing regulations already have reduced the number of gun shops in the state from nearly 9,200 dealers 20 years ago to 2,500 dealers today.
"I'd hate to see government mandate alarms," Pearson said. "They are very good at mandating and very poor at paying for things. That is actually the gun shop owner's business."
While the ATF offers training for licensed gun dealers on better record-keeping and how to identify and prevent straw purchases, it's the responsibility of the dealers themselves to make sure their buildings are secure, and it is up to local municipalities to better scrutinize such facilities, Ahern said.
Both Des Plaines and Roselle police departments are working with the gun shops in their jurisdiction to improve security.
The owners of Maxon, which has been operating at 1226 Rand Road for the past 20 years, have plans to expand the gun shop in a new Des Plaines location.
"(The owner) agreed to increase the security, not only (with) security cameras, but also the strength of his facility," Moylan said. "He's taken measures now, and we are also going to make sure that his new facility is a lot stronger and not as easy to penetrate as his current one."
Roselle Police Deputy Chief Roman Tarchala said the family that owns The Gun Doctor Inc., 1050 W. Lake St., which was burglarized last October, also has taken steps to correct elements of the security system that were compromised.
But perhaps the response time of local police departments also needs improvement.
It's not uncommon for burglar alarms to go through an alarm company first before the local police department is notified, said Algonquin Police Chief Russell Laine, a noted gun expert.
Laine said even if the alarm were to go directly to police dispatch, there still would be a delay in response. The only deterrent to keep burglars from getting away quickly is putting as many obstacles as possible in their way, Laine said.
Securing the building's access points and locking down firearms individually would help slow them down, he added.
Industry experts say the only way to prevent a gun shop from being burglarized is to bolster the facility as though it were a prison.
Neal Lueders, manager of the 30-year-old G.A.T. Guns Inc. firearms superstore in East Dundee, said the facility has never been breached by burglars.
The building is protected by motion and heat sensors, cameras, triple locks on the front doors with metal gates in front of them, and no windows anywhere, he said.
"All the windows on the outside are fake, with the exception of one in the front that is barred and alarmed," he said. "All of our showcases are smash proof. It's actually like a bulletproof type, so it's very hard to get into. Anything that's within reach of a customer is chain-locked. This is a little fortress."
The fact that the Des Plaines, Roselle and other suburban gun shops were breached means they didn't have a reliable security system, said Michael Magill, a retired retail security expert and a member of the International American Society of Industrial Security.
Security alarms won't stop thieves from getting away because they are in and out so quickly, Magill said.
Using roll-down steel doors to bolster exterior entrances, using windows and display cases made out of polycarbonate glass, and employing both electronic and physical protective systems to secure the roof, air vents and the exterior walls of the facility should slow down burglars, Magill said.
"To truly protect guns, you need kind of an armored vault where you put them away at night," Magill said. "The longer it takes for the burglars to get to (the guns), the sooner it is to get the cops there."
However, Magill acknowledged, installing such security systems can be unaffordable for smaller, mom-and-pop gun shops.
"It's not cheap, but it really works well," Magill said.
Magill said it's up to each community and its residents to hold gun shop owners responsible.
"The public has to realize what the downside is (of lax regulations)," he said. "If it comes from the state level, (then) you have a more coherent program that more people will get on the bandwagon with."
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