The stolen guns contribute to violent crime and have been used in at least 19 area murders -- and likely more, although records are incomplete.
"They could be still out on the street. They could be in criminals' hands. They just haven't been recovered. In other words, not all criminals will throw a gun down after they committed a crime and run off," said Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the Houston field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"Houston is so close to Mexico, we do have guns that go to Mexico. So there could be people stealing guns and taking them across the border," she said.
The serial numbers of stolen guns are entered into the National Crime Information Center, a computerized index of criminal histories, fugitives, stolen property and missing persons. The database is accessible to law enforcement agencies nationwide. The FBI says it includes more than 2.9 million guns, nearly 320,000 of them from Texas.
The Houston Police Department returned about 900 stolen weapons to their rightful owners in 2010 and another 1,000 last year. Spokesman John Cannon said the department "is committed to reducing the numbers of guns on our streets."
But he acknowledged it's "a daunting task in a city of more than 2 million residents. We arrest more than 100,000 individuals every year. A number of them are wanted on crimes committed with guns."
Records show police identified suspects or made arrests in only 8 percent of the cases in which guns were taken in robberies and burglaries.
Among those who had guns stolen are Terry and Charles McQueen. The Houston couple lost 18 shotguns, eight rifles and four pistols in a 2008 burglary. Four of the shotguns were worth at least $11,000 apiece, said Charles McQueen, who is a hunter.
The McQueens had the serial numbers, and authorities entered them into the database, but none of the weapons surfaced.
"It is surprising," McQueen said. "You would think at least one would pop its head up."