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“Cars were not designed to be gun safes,” said one Texas lieutenant.
In February, Tiffany Pelt, the spokesperson for the Lubbock Police Department, posted on the department’s Facebook page about what she called a “disturbing trend.” She pointed out that 384 guns had been reported stolen out of cars last year in the Texas city — firearms that were now circulating through the black market.
Pelt’s message, which called owning a firearm a “great responsibility,” is just one example of how some law enforcement officials are trying to persuade gun owners that leaving weapons in their vehicles is a bad idea. In recent months, police have broadcast warnings through social media and other channels about the nexus between stolen guns and violent crime. Some have more directly denounced laws that make it easier for people to carry guns in public or stash them in their cars, trucks, and vans.
In Hartford, Connecticut, Police Chief James Rovella reacted to a near-doubling of the number of gun thefts last year by sending a letter to all residents with pistol permits, pleading that if they must leave firearms in their cars, to at least secure them inside a locked box, or with a cable lock. A crime prevention officer in Philadelphia posted a flyer warning residents that stolen guns could be used to harm innocent people and children. In Jacksonville, Florida, Sheriff Mike Williams spent an evening with his officers counseling residents in one neighborhood about the consequences of not locking their car doors — an overture that followed a year, 2015, in which reports of gun thefts from cars topped 500 for the first time in at least a decade.
“Cars were not designed to be gun safes,” said Chris Hooper, a police lieutenant in Corpus Christi, Texas, which put up billboard ads to warn drivers about the risks of keeping guns in cars. “We’ve tried our best to express that concern.”
Fueling police anxiety are killings like that of 15-year-old Nia Savage, who was shot and killed in Mobile, Alabama, on Valentine’s Day. The gun used to kill her had been stolen from a parked car during a Mardi Gras parade a few days earlier.
Some of the police warnings came after The Trace asked law enforcement agencies in the nation’s largest cities and counties to provide statistics on gun thefts, something that many had not previously tracked. The 92 cities and counties that responded to the request by deadline on Friday collectively reported more than 10,500 guns stolen from cars in 2015.
Seventy-nine of those cities and counties provided multiple years’ worth of data. Of those, 60 — including Las Vegas, Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas — received more reports of guns stolen from vehicles in 2015 than they did in 2014. The average year-to-year increase was 26 percent.
Many of the cities that have seen sharp increases are in states that have eased restrictions on carrying guns in private vehicles or in public, or had loose restrictions to begin with.
Of the 19 locations that tallied fewer guns stolen from cars in 2015, seven were in California, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the U.S.
Georgia offers one example of a state that has moved aggressively over the last decade to roll back limits on guns. Since 2008, the legislature has enacted laws that allow gun owners to keep weapons in their cars at work and to bring them into bars, churches, and some government buildings.
Atlanta is an epicenter of automobile gun theft. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, thefts rose from about 550 to about 850, a more than 50 percent increase. Georgia, like most states, does not require residents to report stolen firearms to police, so the actual number of guns stolen from vehicles is likely much higher.
After The Trace started making inquiries about gun thefts in Atlanta last year, the police department filmed a public service announcement. The video, which was posted online and picked up by local media and television outlets, featured the police department’s chief firearms instructor telling viewers that vehicles were not safe places to store guns.
“We would not have found out that it was a more urgent situation that we need to address without somebody really asking questions,” said Sergeant Warren Pickard of the Atlanta police, who helped The Trace obtain the city’s statistics and later led the creation of the public service announcement. “It’s important to get the message out there. Maybe one person will see it, and that will make all the difference.”
In Lubbock, Pelt told The Trace she plans on creating a public service announcement to run on social media and the city’s television channel. She is making a point of tracking crimes involving guns stolen from vehicles and sharing those examples with local journalists.
In January, a convicted felon with confirmed gang ties was shot by Lubbock police after he pulled a handgun on officers in a neighborhood near Texas Tech University. Police later found out that the handgun had been stolen from the center console of an unlocked GMC pickup truck in September. Pelt noted that fact in her Facebook post.
“Cars were not designed to be gun safes. We’ve tried our best to express that concern.
CORPUS CHRISTI POLICE LIEUTENANT
“This is something that we’re going to try to keep in the news,” Pelt said. “If there was a stolen gun that was used in a crime then I want to make an effort to put that in the news release just to bring more attention to it.”
Efforts by law enforcement officials to stamp out gun thefts often put them at odds with the National Rifle Association, which has lobbied to make it easier for gun owners to carry weapons in more places — including automobiles. At least 15 states, including Florida, Georgia, and Ohio, have adopted laws that require business owners to allow employees to leave firearms in their vehicles on company property.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sergeant Shane Tuell, the police department’s public information officer, said he believes the increases in thefts can be at least partially attributed to the state’s open carry law, which allows gun owners to carry firearms visibly if they have a permit. Statistics from the department show that gun thefts started trending upward after open carry took effect in late 2012, rising from 135 in 2011 to 205 in 2015.
Tuell said gun owners who visit businesses that prohibit firearms will sometimes leave their weapons in their cars and walk inside with their empty holster on their hip.
“If there’s someone around, and they see that empty holster, you’re telling them there’s a gun in that parking lot,” Tuell said, “and you’re inviting them to find it.”
In January, Tulsa police found a gun that had been stolen from an unlocked vehicle on the body of a 23-year-old man who was shot to death in a city park, said Dave Walker, a sergeant in the department’s homicide unit.
Michael Rallings, the top law enforcement official in Memphis, Tennessee, blasted a state law passed in 2014 to allow gun owners to carry firearms in their vehicles without a permit. He told the local WREG news channel that the year before the new law, 378 guns were reported stolen from cars; by 2016 that figure had surged to 851.
“Laws have unintended consequences,” Rallings was quoted as saying. “We cannot ignore that as a legislature passes laws that make guns more accessible to criminals, that has a direct effect on our violent crime rate.”