More guns are being stolen out of cars in America, particularly in states that have made it easier for people to carry firearms on the road.
There are no reliable national numbers, but an NPR survey of a sampling of police departments reveals steady increases in reports of guns stolen from vehicles.
In Atlanta, the number rose to 1,021 in 2018 from 439 in 2009.
In St. Louis, it increased to 597 from 200 in the same period.
Some of the biggest spikes have come just in the last few years in Tennessee. The number of guns reported stolen from vehicles statewide nearly doubled in one year. In 2016, 2,203 were reported; a year later, reports numbered 4,064, according to figures provided to NPR by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
“The crime overall is not new, but the volume — the amount that we’re seeing — is new,” says Lt. Blaine Whited of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. “It’s enough to shock you.”
Whited runs the city’s Juvenile Crime Task Force, and he says youths are often the ones stealing the guns.
“The kids know where they’re at. They understand, ‘We check enough door handles, we’re gonna get something,’ ” Whited says.
Last year, 659 guns were reported stolen out of vehicles in Nashville — a 70% jump over 2016. And police say those guns are being used in crimes, such as the February killing of a local musician.
Whited believes people have become too “comfortable” with the guns they keep in their cars. About a month ago, a juvenile offender in a nearby county escaped custody and is believed to have found a gun inside an unlocked pickup truck.
“There was a key, along with a loaded Springfield .45 handgun,” says Whited. “He now not only has been able to obtain a car but a loaded firearm.”
“It is crazy,” says state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Democrat who represents part of Memphis. The number of guns reported stolen from vehicles in his city has spiraled upward to 1,273 last year from 585 in 2015.
He traces the surge back to a couple of laws passed earlier this decade that made it easier for people to keep guns in their cars.
“There was agreement that there was a need for Tennesseans to protect themselves within their cars,” Hardaway says. He co-sponsored one of the bills, which dropped the permit and training requirements for guns kept in vehicles. But he says he didn’t realize that so many people would be so sloppy with their guns.
“It didn’t cross my mind that we would have that many stupid people with weapons in their cars,” says Hardaway. “These are the unintended consequences that we have an obligation to go back and fix.”
At the urging of the Memphis police director, Hardaway introduced legislation establishing criminal penalties for people who fail to secure guns in their cars.
He says he tried to build support from the local gun lobby by amending the bill to use the word “secure” instead of “lock.”
“We couldn’t say, ‘Lock your doors,’ because NRA has an aversion to anything that says ‘lock’ and ‘gun’ in the same paragraph,” Hardaway says.
The NRA wouldn’t comment on the legislation to NPR.
The bill stalled, in part because of opposition from Republican state Rep. Micah Van Huss, chair of the House Constitutional Protections & Sentencing Subcommittee.
“I understand there’s a problem with criminals breaking into cars and stealing guns. But I don’t want to make criminals out of law-abiding citizens,” Van Huss says.
If anything, Van Huss believes the state should go further in deregulating firearms.
“I want to un-infringe the laws that infringe our constitutional rights. I want to get rid of them. I think it’s unconstitutional to require a permit,” Van Huss says.
New stage in gun rights movement
This school of thought is often called “constitutional carry,” and it’s the latest stage of the gun rights movement. Since the 1990s, most states have made it easier to get a permit to carry a gun; now politicians such as Van Huss want to get rid of the permit and required safety training.
Since then, both Kansas City and St. Louis have seen sharp increases in the number of guns stolen from cars.
“We have had groups of individuals that are really breaking into cars just looking for weapons,” says Capt. Renee Kriesmann, commander of the downtown district of St. Louis where the thefts have been most common. She says thefts are especially concentrated in parking lots around sporting events.
After the law changed, “more people started carrying weapons,” Kriesmann says. “And then they found themselves in positions where then they had to leave [guns] in a car in order to go to some of these events.”
Some firearms trainers worry about the apparent casualness of many new gun owners.
“I think when we look at the purchase of a firearm, and stewardship doesn’t come into the question, then you potentially have a problem,” says Clint Bruce, a former Navy SEAL who founded a firearms training business in Texas called TRG.
“In the military, custody assumes stewardship. Not only did I issue that [weapon] to you, but you’re responsible for that as long as you have it.”
Constitutional carry advocates acknowledge that people can be careless with their weapons. Van Huss, for instance, says he encourages gun owners to get safety training.
“I do agree that citizens should be trained, but I don’t believe it’s my responsibility as government to infringe on their Second Amendment rights to tell them they have to be,” Van Huss says.
Last week, the Tennessee legislature took another step in that direction by voting to reduce the minimum training requirements for permits to carry concealed firearms. Instead of the current requirement of eight hours of in-person training and live firing, applicants would be allowed to watch an online course and take a test. Supporters of the bill, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, say they want to give people a less cumbersome option than current in-person safety training.
In response to the growing number of guns stolen from cars, the legislature approved a new mandatory 30-day sentence for gun thieves.
Those who pay the price
Pastor Larry Rayford doesn’t like the sound of that. He ministers to young people in a Nashville neighborhood north of the state capitol, and often encounters those who are affected by guns stolen from cars.
“It’s a real hurting situation,” Rayford says. “We’re having children, you know, that are dying, or murdering people, catching huge murder cases now, because of these guns.”
He doesn’t excuse the thefts, but he’s baffled by the apparent indifference of people who make their guns so easy to steal.
At the same time, he says more people in this neighborhood want guns in their cars now, because so many other drivers are armed. Just a few weeks ago, he says, he watched one driver point a handgun at another.
“If it wasn’t for people blowing their horn, I truly believe he would have shot that gun,” he says. “He realized people had seen him, and he hurried up and sped off.”
Driving while armed
News of gun crime in traffic causes more people to get guns for their cars, says Paul Jividen of Royal Range USA, a gun store and training center on the south side of Nashville.
“There’s been carjackings less than a mile down the road from here, so, yes, there’s very much been an increased desire for safety,” Jividen says.
He encourages people to buy locks or safes for the guns they keep in their cars and to take safety training.
“If you go through one of our classes, you’re not going to be one of these people violating these basic rules of gun safety,” he says.
But Jividen also believes that training should be voluntary. While he wishes people showed more common sense with guns in cars, he doesn’t think it’s something that can be required by law.
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