When Felix Pytlinske opened his West Olive shop the morning of Jan. 12, he found it had happened again. The metal gate separating the handgun room from the rest of his shop had been pried open. Thirty handguns and two long guns were missing.
It was at least the fifth, maybe the sixth time, in recent years his Ottawa County shop, Felix’s Marina and Guns, had been burglarized. Pytlinske thinks he knows why.
"It’s because they like the stuff we’ve got,” he said.
Last time it happened, in April 2006, more than 60 firearms were stolen. More than half were later used in crimes, confiscated from felons or recovered in drug houses in Detroit and Saginaw, Ottawa County Sheriff’s Lt. Mark Bennett said. None were used in homicides, “as far as I know,” Bennett said.
No one has been arrested for the latest break-in at Felix’s, and none of the recently stolen guns have surfaced yet, Bennett said. “I expect we’ll begin to see some of them turn up,” he noted. Unfortunately, we’re concerned they’ll end up in the hands of the criminal element. Any weapon in the hands of the wrong person is a concern to us.”
One of the most contentious elements of the debate over gun-control policy rests on the simplest of questions: How do you use laws to keep lawbreakers from getting guns?
Criminals have many ways of obtaining guns. They can borrow them. They can obtain them through straw purchases by having someone else buy them. They can buy them from private sellers at gun shows, thus avoiding background checks. Gun traffickers buy guns from licensed dealers, and then resell them illegally on the street.
Nearly all guns recovered in crimes originally were purchased legally from gun dealers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Nationally, about 230,000 guns are stolen each year in home burglaries and 25,000 from gun dealers, the U.S. Justice Department estimates. Over the past three years, an estimated 74,000 guns were stolen or lost from gun retailers, the ATF reported.
Thieves likely see Pytlinske’s shop as an easy target, Bennett explained, because it’s in a rural setting on a bayou of the Grand River. Pytlinske, 82, said his father opened the store in 1929 and began selling guns in 1955. He has a federal license to sell firearms. The state does not license gun dealers and has little control over them.
“There are regulations that say he has to take steps to secure those weapons,” Bennett said. “I think it’s very important for the general public to realize if they’re going to possess a firearm, it’s their responsibility to secure that property.”
ATF has no plans to close Felix's gun shop, Donald Dawkins, special agent in the Detroit office, said.
"Even though there's been some thefts from his business, he's basically in compliance with what ATF requires," Dawkins stated.
Pytlinske said he’s not responsible when a gun from his shop is used in a crime.
“It’s unfortunate that they would be,” he said, “but it’s not my responsibility. If they stole your car and used it in a drug deal, are you responsible for it?”
While closed for a few days to make repairs after his latest break-in, Pytlinske figures he lost out on a lot of sales spurred by fear of a government crackdown after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.
Shortly after reopening, he sold out of AR-15 assault rifles similar to the one used by the Newtown shooter. Handguns now are displayed in a glass case at the front of the store with a sign that says, “All handguns removed dailey (sic).”
As a federally licensed dealer, Pytlinske must run an FBI background check on anyone purchasing a gun from him, but he says he opposes expanding background checks to cover all gun transactions. That’s because he’s heard a bill in the U.S. Senate would require all purchasers to pass physical, eye and mental examinations before buying a gun. That is a myth commonly accepted by gun control opponents.
Besides, “the crooks don’t buy guns,” Pytlinske said. “They either steal them or take them away from somebody.”
He agrees with National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s call for allowing guns in schools.
“A person who is sufficiently competent to teach your kid should be sufficiently competent to carry a gun,” Pytlinske said. “If they’re not, they shouldn’t be in the game.”
Rather than passing new laws regulating guns, he said, the key to reducing gun crimes “is quite simple: adherence to the Ten Commandments. Enforce some of the laws that you’ve got, and really do something to the people who violate it.”
Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.