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Gun Theft

Should It Be a Crime to Leave a Gun in an Unlocked Car?

A small-town Connecticut police force tries a tough-love twist to secure firearms storage.

Last Wednesday morning, police in the semi-rural Connecticut town of Orange received a flurry of reports that someone was breaking into vehicles. One of the callers was 66-year-old Vincent Brescia, who informed authorities that his loaded .38-caliber revolver had been snatched from the glove compartment of his unlocked truck, which was parked in his driveway overnight. The notice came well within the state’s mandatory 72-hour period to report lost or stolen firearms, but instead of officers leaving the scene with just an incident report, they charged Brescia with breaking the law.

Though he “expressed remorse for failing to lock his car,” Brescia was arrested for misdemeanor reckless endangerment, the Town of Orange Police Department announced on its Facebook page. Brescia’s pistol permit was also seized and sent to the licensing and firearms unit of the Connecticut State Police for review.

Anthony Cuozzo, the assistant chief of the Orange Police Department and a self-described “gun guy” who is also a firearms instructor, tells The Trace that Brescia was a “good citizen” for reporting his gun stolen. “But the number one tenet of responsible gun ownership is that the gun is properly secured and the owner maintains control of that gun,” he says.

The incident in Orange is a local police blotter item that raises some big questions. While reckless endangerment is a charge often applied to cases where people carelessly discharge firearms, an examination of media reports and interviews with several gun law experts and researchers suggest Brescia’s case is extremely rare.

Mark Sherman, who operates a criminal and civil law firm in Stamford, Connecticut, tells The Trace that Brescia was likely charged with reckless endangerment — a charge that does not require a prosecutor to prove intent — because there are no laws in Connecticut for securing a firearm in a car, nor are there such ordinances in the town of Orange. “I think when police are reaching for a charge, they tend to charge crimes that are grounded in recklessness because they know they cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt any intent to commit a crime,” he says.

An Associated Press report from last month detailed the alarming rate at which stolen guns end up at crime scenes. Chicago Police Spokesman Anthony Guglielmi called them the “engine of violence” in his city. And according to law enforcement officials like St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, most stolen firearms are picked from the center consoles and glove compartments of any given city’s millions of vehicles — many of them unlocked. “It’s irresponsible bordering on criminal,” said a Pennsylvania judge last year of leaving guns in unlocked cars. “A police officer could be shot. A neighbor could be shot. A child could be shot.” It’s a form of gun theft so common that even FBI agents, law enforcement officers, and Secret Service agents have returned to their cars only to find a weapon missing. In August, 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was fatally shot on a San Francisco pier with a service pistol stolen from the personal car of a Bureau of Land Management ranger.

(Of course, thieves target more than just cars: A 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics report estimated that 1.4 million firearms were stolen in household burglaries nationwide from 2005 through 2010, and 80 percent were never recovered.)

There has been a rash of burglaries from unlocked cars in communities along Interstate 95 over the past six months, according to Cuozzo. But only one of those cars was forcibly entered, he says. “Every other victim, the car was unlocked,” which is sometimes intentional, because people would rather burglars “don’t damage the car,” Cuzzo says. “The people perpetrating these crimes are not interested in breaking into your car. They’re going to test the door, and if they don’t get in then, they’re moving on to the next car.”

As a result, the Orange police department has issued press releases and made reverse 911 calls to get people to lock their cars, an effort he describes as “just short of begging.”

This is not an uncommon tactic: the police department in Jacksonville, Florida, became so concerned about the number of guns being stolen from cars there that they launched a social media campaign earlier this year to try to convince gun owners to leave their firearms at home.

Because there exists no federal standard for personal firearms storage or the reporting of lost and stolen firearms, many states and municipalities have passed their own laws to combat the flow of illegal guns. Connecticut introduced its 72-hour reporting requirement for lost and stolen guns in 2007, a tactic which research suggests works: According to a 2013 analysis by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, states with no lost or stolen reporting requirement export crime guns at a rate two-and-a-half times higher than states without one. (MAIG is a precursor to Everytown for Gun Safety, a seed donor to The Trace.)

Mandatory reporting laws have also found opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. In 2008, the National Rifle Association argued that a “frivolous” lost-and-stolen ordinance in Baltimore, Maryland, “fails to address the true source of crime” and “victimizes lawful gun owners for the actions of criminals.” The gun group also labeled a 2012 bill introducing reporting requirements in Virginia “anti-gun.”

“It would make the gun owner a victim twice,” Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said at the time.

More recently, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a mandatory gun loss and theft reporting bill in 2013. Brown told his legislature that he was “not convinced that criminalizing the failure to report a lost or stolen firearm would improve identification of gun traffickers or help law enforcement disarm people prohibited from possessing guns.”

Brescia has been arrested twice before, both times for domestic disturbances, but Cuozzo says those episodes had no bearing on his most recent arrest: “We felt the act of leaving a gun in an unlocked car was just so egregious.” Brescia did not return requests for comment.

In one way, Brescia was following the law by meeting his state’s reporting requirement. But by admitting his car was unlocked and his gun loaded, he demonstrated what the local police deemed to be a disregard for public safety.

“On the one hand, reporting a stolen gun is the right thing to do,” Allison Anderman, a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, tells The Trace. “But you don’t get amnesty just because you went to the police about what you did first.”

“The scary thing is, right now, there’s a gun on the street,” Cuozzo says. “The statistics don’t lie. The guns that are stolen in the commission of a crime … almost always wind up being used in the commission of another crime.”

Cuozzo hopes that citizens will continue to report stolen firearms, if only because they cannot bear the thought that their stolen gun might be used in a violent crime. “I think they understand there’s a much greater issue of public safety involved,” he says.

The NRA has not weighed in on Brescia’s arrest, but we do know this: Though the group frequently rallies public opposition to mandatory gun theft reporting laws, the ArmsCare Firearms Insurance it endorses covers members for gun theft up to $2,500 — but only if the vehicle your gun is stolen from is locked.

This article has been updated to include comments from Anthony Cuozzo and Mark Sherman.

[Photo: Flickr user Wolfgang Lonien]