Thieves stole hundreds of guns out of vehicles in Atlanta last year — more than two a day. They swiped them from glove boxes, center consoles, trunks, and on or underneath seats. They took them while the owners were sleeping in their beds, dining at restaurants, hanging out with friends, shopping, and grilling out at the pool. They made off with pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and assault-style rifles.
Atlanta residents report more guns stolen from their cars and trucks — at least 850, a 55 percent increase over 2014 — than any other large city examined as part of a recent investigation by The Trace. Earlier this month, Atlanta police released a public service announcement urging gun owners to secure their weapons and to not leave them behind in their cars or trucks.
In interviews, several Atlanta leaders said that they consider the rising number of gun thefts alarming.
“If you own a weapon, you have a responsibility to care for it, to keep it, and not just in how you operate the weapon, but how you store the weapon,” Ivory Lee Young Jr., a city council member, tells The Trace. “This speaks to a real trend of irresponsibility.”
But there also isn’t much Atlanta can do about it. Georgia has one of the most expansive preemption laws in the U.S. The law explicitly limits the power of municipalities to regulate firearms. City leaders could ask state lawmakers to pass a safe storage law, for example, which might prohibit people from leaving their guns in their vehicles — a location that police say practically invites theft.
But the Republican-dominated state legislature has shown no interest in such legislation, choosing instead to roll back gun restrictions in the state. In 2008, the state adopted a new law that specifically allows people to leave guns behind in their vehicles while at work.
Gun owners whose weapons are stolen in Georgia are also not required to report the theft to police — making it impossible to even fully understand the scope of the problem.
“It would make absolute sense for them to be reported so law enforcement can track them,” said Yolanda Adrean, another Atlanta city council member. “But our hands are tied.”
San Francisco, New Orleans, and other major cities where gun thieves have struck in alarming numbers responded by imposing penalties for either failing to lock up firearms or reporting thefts to authorities. If Atlanta ever passed such a measure, there’s a strong chance a court would toss it out.
Firearms are an especially potent issue in Atlanta. A little more than 500 people were shot in the city last year, more than a 40 percent jump over 2011, when about 350 people were shot, according to police. Reports of shots fired have also increased from 7,030 in 2009 to 8,860 in 2015, or 26 percent.
The violence prompted city leaders to form a task force to take triggermen off the streets. Police Deputy Chief Darryl Tolleson told The Trace that the task force, dubbed Operation Whiplash, had increased arrests, and shootings had gone down or flatlined in areas where it operated.
But the rise in gun thefts from vehicles is “problematic,” Tolleson said, and hampers the police’s ability to prevent violent crime. Atlanta police discuss car break-ins on a daily basis and run a “Clean Car Campaign” to encourage people not to leave valuables inside.
In addition to relaxing rules on leaving guns in vehicles, state lawmakers have also aggressively expanded carrying rights in restaurants, bars, airports and other public spaces to licensed gun owners.
Many of those measures have been pushed by GeorgiaCarry.org, a powerful gun rights group. While advocates and some policymakers argue that more firearms in public places increases the risk of gun theft, GeorgiaCarry.org’s executive director, Jerry Henry, says the opposite was true, advocating the elimination of gun-free zones altogether.
“Let me carry my firearm wherever I go, and I won’t have to leave it in my car,” he says.
Atlanta officials have protested when the state has tried to expand carrying in more places. In 2008, then-mayor Shirley Franklin invoked a century-and-a-half-old state law banning firearms at “public gatherings” to prohibit weapons at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. GeorgiaCarry.org mounted a successful push to repeal the law. Hartsfield-Jackson is now confronted with a different problem: More people are caught with a firearm in their possession at security checkpoints than at any other airport in the country.
“There’s Atlanta, and then there’s Georgia,” says Peter Berg, a rabbi and a founding member of the anti-gun violence group Outcry, which has lobbied city and state policymakers on campus carry and other firearm legislation. “In Atlanta, the response has been generally very supportive; in Georgia, it’s a lot tougher.”
[Photo: Dustin Chambers for The Trace]