CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Stolen guns are a problem in and of itself, Charleston police say, but what happens when authorities find a stolen firearm after it’s been used in a crime? How do gun owners get their property back?
Charleston Police say it’s a process — from turning a gun in as evidence to getting it back to its rightful owner — it is not as simple as walking into headquarters and asking nicely. However, they say they don’t want to keep evidence in their possession too long.
“The police department is not a storage facility,” Commander of Central Investigations Captain Andre Jenkins says. “We actually want to get [the gun] back to folks that own them and can actually own them lawfully.”
When a gun owner wants their property back after police take possession of it, the process starts with three words: ‘Dear Chief Reynolds’ – a letter to the chief, usually handwritten, requesting his or her gun back.
“After Chief [Luther] Reynolds receives the letter, it goes to his administrative assistant who then forwards a copy of that letter over to our evidence custodian,” Jenkins says.
The evidence custodian then puts together a packet, Jenkins says. It contains the gun owner’s background check, which is paired with the incident report detailing how the Charleston Police Department came in possession of the gun. The agency then conducts a status check to make sure the firearm is clear to be returned to the owner.
These documents are typically behind the handwritten letter, a requirement implemented by the former police chief over 20 years ago, the department says. Today, it’s as simple as an email, but the agency still gets more handwritten letters than anything, with no clear reason why.
“It’s just a good way of us being able to get these firearms back to folks that want them back and can actually own them lawfully,” Jenkins says.
Letters written to Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds from 2019-2022 detail how dozens of people from across the Lowcountry ask for their guns back after police confiscate them in traffic stops and criminal investigations. There are also about 20 cases of a gun owner’s firearm being stolen either out of a car or a home. Police sometimes find those guns in stolen cars or at crime scenes, the Charleston Police Department says.
The detail in the letters vary, with some reading, “I own [a] gun and I would like to have it back.”
In his handwritten request, he details how his gun was stolen out of his James Island home years ago. After filing a report through the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office in August of 2012, Charleston Police say it turned up in November later that year in a house where a shooting took place. The Charleston Police Department says it wasn’t the gun used in that shooting, it just happened to be there. But they say they don’t know for sure it wasn’t used in a crime.
Goldstein tells Live 5 over the phone getting his gun back was especially frustrating, as he details in his letter, because his father gave it to him for Christmas when he was just 8 years old.
Jenkins says that much detail isn’t necessary. The Charleston Police Department does most of the work behind the scenes, only keeping the gun if the investigation is ongoing.
“There are cases where we keep it. So, if that weapon is associated with a crime, then of course, we don’t release that weapon until disposition of a case,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins goes on to say a lot of gun owners requesting their stolen firearms back could have avoided the process altogether because the guns were stolen due to negligent storage. However, the Charleston Police Department doesn’t take that into account.
“They were the victim of a crime, so it doesn’t matter how it was stolen to us,” Jenkins says.
And local gun enthusiasts agree.
“As long as they have a way to prove they purchased it and they legally purchased it and they can legally own a firearm, they should get their gun back,” Bill Hayes, Senior Instructor at ATP Gun Shop and Range in Summerville, says.
But Hayes has some advice for gun owners looking to avoid this process, as well – something he says more people need to do.
“Why people don’t want to lock [up their guns], I don’t know,” Hayes says. “They’ve come in here to get copies of their receipt to prove ownership.”
After reviewing the letters written to the Charleston Police Department, several guns were purchased at ATP Gun Shop and Range, where Hayes instructs firearm and storage safety classes. Hayes says he’s seen multiple customers come in to get copies of their receipts but no lockbox to store their gun safely.
“We sell so many kinds of lockboxes. Other sellers also have false clocks, false coffee tables. No matter what, you’ve got lock them up,” Hayes says.
No matter how the gun stolen, Charleston Police say they’re just doing their job and keeping the streets safe.
“It’s just like any other evidence that we have upstairs. We have TVs and all kind of things that we come into possession of,” Jenkins says. “But when it comes to a firearm, we need to make sure that we’re giving that firearm back to the owner and not putting it back into the community so that it can be used in other crimes.”
Other law enforcement agencies in the Lowcountry say they contact the owner directly if the gun is no longer needed for evidence to schedule a pickup time. No letter-writing process is necessary.
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