We'd love to end copper thefts by curing the drug abuse epidemic, since almost everyone agrees the illicit drug trade drives the illicit trade in copper.
Until that happy day, the most practical way to deter metal thieves — and the huge damage they're inflicting on Kentucky businesses and property owners — is by drying up their market.
Also, law enforcement needs access to more timely information about transactions in "scrap" such as copper air-conditioner parts and catalytic converters.
Legislation to do both these things is under consideration by the state legislature and Lexington council.
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In Frankfort, the House last week unanimously approved a bill requiring registration of commercial recyclers who buy scrap metal. They also would have to make daily reports to sheriffs and local police of purchases of restricted metals and other listed items, including catalytic converters, drain covers and guardrails.
House Bill 390, sponsored by Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore, would also end cash payments for such items and require a traceable payment method, such as a check in the mail.
In Lexington, councilman Kevin Stinnett is taking a bolder approach by proposing an ordinance modeled on one in Houston.
It would require scrap metal dealers to register and obtain $500 licenses from the Division of Police. Dealers would have to file daily reports and keep scrap metal or catalytic converters on their premises for at least three business days after purchase, and longer if police suspect the materials were stolen. (Now, says Stinnett, stolen materials can be sold at 8 a.m. and leave town on a train by noon.)
Also, individuals and businesses that sell scrap metal more than twice a year in Lexington would be required to buy a scrap-metal sellers license from the Division of Police.
Exempt from this requirement would be licensed electricians, plumbers and HVAC technicians; charitable groups and schools, and industries that generate scrap metal in the normal course of business.
We can already hear the moans and groans about government imposing new bureaucratic burdens on legitimate businesses, individuals whose only occupation is collecting aluminum cans.
But what's the alternative when a depraved few are willing to ruin a $10,000 air-conditioning system to make off with less than $100 worth of copper?
It's not too much to require scrap dealers to ask for the title before buying a vehicle that's less than 15 years old, as the ordinance proposed in Lexington would do.
Lexington police put together data on metal thefts in Fayette County from the beginning of November 2010 until the end of 2011. During the 14 months, there were 1,450 reported cases representing a loss of $5.7 million — but only 127 arrests.
In the first two months of 2012, metal thefts did $500,000 in damage in Fayette County, and police figure there are other thefts that were not reported.
Under the circumstances, enacting reasonable restrictions on the buyers and sellers is the only way to protect the public.