Thieves smashed through the wall of an Annapolis gun store yesterday morning and stole 42 handguns in what authorities fear may be the latest in a series of gunshop burglaries in Maryland and Virginia that have netted criminals about 600 high-powered weapons.
The break-in at Bob's Coins and Guns in the first block of Defense Street appears to be related to 18 other burglaries of gunshops in the Washington suburbs of Maryland and Virginia since August, said David C. Troy, special agent in charge of the Washington district office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.
Investigators believe "one and possibly two gangs" have stolen the weapons, which are worth about $500,000.
ATF officials said they cannot recall when such a large number of gunshop burglaries have occurred in such a short period of time in such a relatively small geographical area -- roughly from Hanover County, Virginia, just north of Richmond, to Annapolis.
The officials said that an informal task force has been established with local police agencies to investigate the break-ins and exchange leads in the case.
Gunshops burglarized in Maryland include two each in Waldorf and Wheaton as well as stores in Silver Spring, Bryantown, College Park, Temple Hills, Owings and Burtonsville.
The thieves who hit Bob's Coins and Guns at 3 a.m. used a maul tosmash a hole into the cinder-block wall of the store -- the only wall notcovered by an alarm sensor, police said.
"They worked on it for at least 15 or 20 minutes," said Detective PatRiordan. "The hole was about . . . one-and-a-half cinder blocks high by two wide."
Bob Meck, the owner of Bob's Coins and Guns, said it was likely that the thief or thieves had been to the store before and were familiar with the layout of a gunshop that the police described as a "fortress" because of its extensive security systems. Besides the burglar alarms and a steel grate inside the store, the gunshop was equipped with a motion detector, which sounded when the burglars broke the glass display case.
"Basically speaking, someone did a lot of homework," Mr. Meck said. The burglar "has definitely been in the store before," he said.
Mr. Troy said that break-ins at gunshops as well-protected as Bob's Coins and Guns underscore the lengths to which thieves will go to feed the insatiable appetite for guns on the street.
"There is a very lucrative black market for these guns," Mr. Troy said. "The turnover is quick. They [the weapons] aren't put in a basement or trunk. They are on the street immediately. The money is on the table waiting for them."
The thieves are able to sell the weapons for twice their retail value. The police said that the weapons being stolen are at least comparable to those used by most law enforcement agencies.
Officials said several of the stolen handguns turned up during a drug raid on a Washington crack house. One man was wounded with another weapon taken during one of the burglaries.
Police have a description of a suspect who was seen Friday afternoon driving a maroon or dark-colored van around the store several times. The man was white, with long blond hair.