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How We Reported Our Story About Guns Stolen from Cars

We started with public records requests, but that wasn’t enough.

Stolen guns have become a mounting concern for law enforcement agencies and policymakers. A survey of firearms owners, slated for release in 2017, will show that between 300,000 and 600,000 guns are pilfered from private owners every year.

The Trace examined a common way guns are stolen: out of vehicles, forgotten, or left intentionally, often because the owner underestimated the risk of theft. Our reporting uncovered instances of guns stolen from cars in almost every conceivable manner: from locked and unlocked cars and trucks, when secured in lockboxes, or in the trunk. Thieves broke car windows, jimmied locks, and pried through doors. Sometimes, they snatched them when drivers were still in their vehicles.

We found that many of the cities with the highest numbers of reported theft are in states that have relaxed or rolled back laws against carrying firearms in public places — including, specifically, in private vehicles.

We began working on this story more than two months ago by making public records requests with police departments in about 100 of the country’s biggest cities, seeking police reports and statistics about guns stolen from vehicles. We followed up with on-the-ground reporting in what may well be the stolen-gun-from-car capital of the U.S.: Atlanta. More gun owners reported their weapon stolen from a vehicle in the city than in any other that responded to our request (we had received 2015 data from 54 cities as of press time). We also found that reported thefts in many cities are on the rise.

We plan on continuing to update our data online as responses to our records requests come in. In the meantime, we wanted to share some of our findings, along with a few tips and ideas for journalists who want to localize our reporting for their own audiences — or for anyone else interested in learning more about this phenomenon.

What we found

We uncovered a trove of information about stolen firearms from vehicles. Among the findings that we did not explore in-depth in our story:

  • Cars are the biggest source of stolen guns in some cities. Atlanta police recorded about 1,250 stolen gun reports last year; 69 percent of those involved vehicle break-ins. The majority of gun thefts in Lubbock, Texas (72 percent), St. Petersburg, Florida. (53 percent), and San Francisco (60 percent) also involved automobiles.
  • Jacksonville had the second highest number of reported guns stolen from cars on our list, tallying 563 last year. Also high were Charlotte, North Carolina (408); Austin, Texas (377); Las Vegas (360); and Lubbock, Texas (349). All these cities but Jacksonville, Florida, which didn’t report historical data, saw a year-over-year increase in the number of filed police reports.
  • Atlanta, Lubbock, and Shreveport, Louisiana, rank first, second, and third in number of firearms reported stolen from vehicles per 1,000 residents, according to our calculations.
  • Gun thefts from cars have been trending upward in many places. Police in Greensboro, North Carolina, received about 105 guns-stolen-from-vehicle reports last year, a 50 percent increase over 2014, when 70 were stolen. Richmond, Virginia, tallied about 136, nearly triple the number stolen in 2007, when there were 50.

How can I get details about specific theft cases?

Ask your local police department for police reports.

Because we were trying to get information from so many cities, we used MuckRock, a public records management service that streamlines the request process.

When we sent out our first round of requests, we asked for police reports for every motor vehicle burglary and/or larceny of a motor vehicle in 2015, thinking we’d go through the reports and determine what share of them resulted in a firearm being stolen. Big mistake! Most big municipalities file thousands of reports for vehicle burglaries every year. Not only would copying these cost thousands of dollars (we were quoted an estimate of $630,000 by Baltimore officials), it could take weeks or months for the departments to comply.

Having realized our ignorance — and the limits of The Trace’s budget — we narrowed our request.

Here’s the exact language we used for our second try:

“Given the quantity of reports that our request is likely to produce, we want to narrow it. Instead of requesting incident reports for every larceny from a motor vehicle in 2015, we are now only requesting reports for larcenies from motor vehicles in which a firearm was stolen in 2015.

“We still want see all the information contained in the report, including, but not limited to, the time and location of each incident; the criminal’s method of entry; the make and model of the vehicle; descriptions of what was stolen and where from inside the vehicle each item was stolen; the victims’ names, ages and contact information; and the narrative summary of what happened.”

We also sent this tidbit so the department knew we were fine with receiving the information in a format other than paper:

“If this data is collated in a digital file or database, providing the results of a search query that yields this information would be an acceptable substitute to physical copies of the reports.”

Some departments gave us the documents pretty quickly. Charlotte sent nearly 1,000 pages of reports in an email attachment without charging us. Others, however, said our narrower request would still take awhile to compile and cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. With these, we often just asked for a small, random sample of the total.

These reports are great for learning about the circumstances surrounding gun thefts and for getting contact information for gun owners who’ve fallen victim. How much information the reports contain will vary by your state’s public records laws, however. Consult your state’s public record laws and talk to your police department to find out what’s publicly releasable.

Clean the results.

After you’ve submitted a public records request for stolen gun information, be prepared for myriad different responses. Some cities — such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky — responded to our requests with exactly the documents we wanted.

Others responded to our requests by sending spreadsheets containing duplicate entries — i.e., the same gun counted more than once — and didn’t say whether the break-in netted multiple guns. In those instances, we counted up the number of incidents, which gave us a conservative estimate of the number of firearms that had been stolen.

Who are the experts?

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has field offices all over the country with investigators who have been grappling with stolen guns for a long time.

Police officials are another good option. If you want to talk to someone on the front lines, try taking a ride-along with a local officer who works in a high-crime area. For our story, I rode with an Atlanta officer who shared interesting insights about gun crime and theft in his city.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence tracks the passage and implementation of gun laws.

Here are some other links to reports you might find helpful:

Be prepared to hear no.

Departments sometimes won’t create records that don’t already exist. So if they aren’t tracking stolen weapons from cars, the request may be rejected. Oklahoma City police, for example, said they couldn’t isolate automobile burglaries in which guns were stolen from other reported gun thefts, but the records officer asked detectives if they recalled any cases and then forwarded us a handful of reports.

Feel free to use our numbers, just please cite us if you do. If you have any questions or want to check out the records we got in a particular city, feel free to email me at [email protected].

[Photo: Dustin Chambers for The Trace]