ATLANTA — Landen Boyd parked his Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck at a construction site south of downtown Atlanta and went to work, leaving his black Smith & Wesson 9mm in a case underneath the center console.
It was the fall of 2006, and Boyd, a 37-year-old construction superintendent, was overseeing the development of an apartment complex across the train tracks from Mechanicsville, a high-crime neighborhood. When noon came, Boyd hitched a ride to eat lunch with coworkers at a rib joint near Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves’ home stadium.
While Boyd dined, someone chucked a brick through his truck’s back window, crawled inside, grabbed his weapon, and fled.
The Smith & Wesson vanished into Atlanta’s underworld for more than two years. The handgun resurfaced when police found it, smeared with blood, at the scene of a shootout in early 2009.
Privately owned firearms are stolen in America with alarming frequency: between 300,000 and 600,000 every year, a forthcoming survey of gun ownership by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities will show. At the high end, that’s more than 1,600 guns stolen every day, more than one every minute. That’s enough firearms to provide a weapon for every instance of gun violence in the country each year — several times over.
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The survey, which will be published next year, offers the most comprehensive and accurate evaluation of gun ownership in America in more than two decades. A summary of its major findings was provided in advance to The Trace and The Guardian.
The research reveals a country whose gun-owning citizens are increasingly worried about the threat of violence — even though crime rates have fallen — and are responding to that fear by purchasing handguns in big numbers.
Pistol manufacturing has swelled, from less than 600,000 in 2001 to more than 3.6 million in 2014, the last year for which data is available. In some regions, especially in the South and Midwest, the surge in handgun popularity has coincided with an effective lobbying campaign, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association, to expand the number of people legally allowed to carry guns in public, and the number of places where they may carry them.
Many states, including Georgia, have specifically rolled back restrictions against leaving firearms in vehicles. In interviews, gun owners said they take their weapon with them when they travel in their private vehicle — and because they feel empowered to do so, or because they underestimate the risk — routinely leave it there or while they work, shop, or play.
Thieves have apparently caught on to this trend.
An examination by The Trace of data from police departments in 25 large American cities found that thousands of firearms were reported stolen from vehicles last year, and that in most cities, the numbers are on the rise. Some police officials say thieves are breaking into cars and trucks for the specific purpose of finding a firearm.
“It used to be the day of the radio and electronics, but there’s not a market for that anymore,” said Richard Roundtree, the sheriff of Richmond County, Georgia. “The market now is for firearms.”
In 2015, the 25 police departments in our sample received reports of about 4,800 guns stolen from vehicles. In 14 of the 15 cities that also provided 2014 data, the number of stolen guns increased year over year by an average of 40 percent. (The pool is made up of the 25 largest U.S. cities that responded by press time to records requests made in July and August.)
In many of the cities, including Austin and Las Vegas, the rise in thefts came as state leaders or courts tossed out restrictions that blocked carrying guns in vehicles, or leaving them there. These weapons, which are overwhelmingly handguns, are moving directly from legal to illegal possessors. In other words, owners who are carrying firearms for self-protection are arming the very people they fear.
There is no publicly accessible repository of information about weapons stolen from cars or trucks, nor has anyone carried out a systematic effort to find out what happens once they go missing. Research suggests that many owners never report losses and thefts to police — and in most states, they aren’t required to do so. Even in states that obligate owners to tell police if their gun is stolen, enforcement is lax.
But when a gun is swiped from a private vehicle, it doesn’t just disappear. Stolen weapons fuel the Iron Pipeline, an East Coast trafficking route that floods firearms into northeastern cities, often from southern states with more permissive laws and widespread gun ownership. Atlanta is the capital of a state that has come under stinging criticism for fueling that pipeline.
In a 2012 report, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that lost and stolen guns pose a “substantial threat” to public safety and to law enforcement. “Those that steal firearms commit violent crimes with stolen guns, transfer stolen firearms to others who commit crimes, and create an unregulated secondary market for firearms,” the report reads.
Cars and trucks make easy targets. They are often left unattended for long periods of time, and there is little defense even against the most rudimentary break-in techniques, such as a brick or tire iron through a window.
Last year, Atlanta tallied more gun thefts from vehicles than any municipality The Trace examined. Police logged about 850 gun thefts from cars in 2015, an almost 90 percent increase over 2009, when about 450 were reported stolen. Cars and trucks represented the most common source of stolen firearms in that city, accounting for 70 percent of all reported gun thefts last year.
Ronnie Nunnally, 52, reported one of those thefts last year. Nunnally was driving to work in northwest Atlanta last October when he parked his white pickup truck at a gas pump early one morning. A thief who was driving by in the parking lot apparently saw Nunnally walk into the service station. The thief stopped his car, got out wearing a black sweatshirt and snuck into Nunnally’s truck, according to security camera footage detailed in the police report. When Nunnally returned 10 or 15 minutes later, his tapes and CDs were scattered around the cab, and his .45-caliber handgun was missing from the glove box.
Nunnally carried his firearm, he said in a telephone interview, because his job sites — he also works in construction — were sometimes in dangerous neighborhoods. On that day, he simply forgot to lock the glove box, he said. Nunnally reported the gun stolen, but he says police have never contacted him about the case. “I figure I’ll never hear anything about it,” Nunnally said, “until the gun’s used in a murder.”
In Florida, a Glock 27 pistol swiped from an unlocked Honda Accord in a Jacksonville-area subdivision in mid-2014 helped kill a Tarpon Springs police officer a few days before Christmas that year.
In Tennessee, a small .380-caliber handgun snatched outside a theme park from a vacationing family’s parked Saab in 1994 emerged 21 years later in the killing of a 14-year-old girl in Nashville.
Last year in Indiana, a man wielding a Russian military rifle taken from a vehicle parked in a residential driveway is alleged to have fatally shot a 28-year-old graphics printer in a road rage incident 10 months after the theft.
“They are used in crimes to shoot people, to rob people,” said Officer Tim Ducharme of the Atlanta Police Department, referring to weapons stolen from vehicles. Criminals see these guns as burners: weapons that are easy to steal, easy to ditch, and hard to track. “For them, it doesn’t cost them anything to break into a car and steal a gun,” Ducharme said. “You get four or five guns a week, you’re making money.”
Corey Blackshear, 39, an Atlanta HVAC technician, has lost two guns to car break-ins. Fearing where his guns might have ended up, he subsequently stopped storing them there.
“How would you feel if a gun that you own wound up causing damage or killing somebody?” he said. “That’s the feeling you go through immediately, as soon as you realize it’s stolen.”
‘Ash, they shot me’
Police never solved the case of who stole Boyd’s Smith & Wesson handgun, but it didn’t go far. Two years later, it was in the possession of a 17-year-old who was too young to purchase a firearm legally, and was on a mission to prove himself to Mechanicsville’s homegrown gang, 30 Deep.
The teen, Jonathan Redding, also known as “G-Dog” and “Man-Man,” wanted a “30” tattooed on his face, to him a sign of toughness and loyalty. To earn it, though, he had to prove himself a 30.
At around 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday in the fall of 2008, Robin McMillan walked to his parked car on the side of Standard Food & Spirits, a neighborhood tavern a few miles from where the Smith & Wesson was stolen.
McMillan, a bartender at the tavern, had just finished an eight-hour shift. He placed a bag containing a laptop computer in the passenger seat of his car, and was about to drive away when a dark-colored Jeep Grand Cherokee stopped behind him.
McMillan got out of his car and asked the driver to let him out of the parking lot; he agreed. But then one of the men in the Jeep, later identified in court as Redding, stepped out and pointed Landen Boyd’s handgun in his face, demanding cash. Another passenger grabbed McMillan’s laptop bag.
After McMillan denied having any money, Redding backed up as if to leave — but then pulled the trigger. McMillan dived into his car for cover. “He only missed by a few inches,” McMillan later testified. The Jeep and its occupants drove away.
Two weeks later, in the early hours of a Wednesday morning, Redding came back to the bar. This time he was with three accomplices. All wore masks.
Another Standard employee, John Henderson, 27, had just closed down the restaurant and was sitting at the bar when Redding and the other men, later identified as 30 Deep members, heaved a rock through the glass front door. They rushed inside, and demanded money. Henderson insisted he didn’t have any, and one of the men — prosecutors later said it was Redding — shot him in the leg with the Smith & Wesson pistol. The group then dragged Henderson to a back office, where his coworker, Ashley Elder, had been hiding. “Ash, they shot me,” Henderson cried.
After taking all of the cash from a cabinet in the office, the men left the room, pulling the door until it was nearly shut behind them. Then, a robbery that had begun with one stolen gun turned deadly when one of the thieves used another stolen gun — a Glock 19 pistol, taken from Elder’s purse — to fire several rounds through the door. One bullet struck Henderson in the head.
Elder called 911 and waited for police to arrive. “I put my hand on John and started praying,” she later said. “And I just sat there with my hand on him.”
Henderson died soon after.
A crime of opportunity
An examination of hundreds of police reports reveals a truth about leaving valuables inside cars and trucks: There is really no way to protect vehicles against determined thieves.
Firearms were stolen when car doors were locked, when weapons were secured in lockboxes, or in the trunk. Thieves broke car windows, jimmied locks, and pried through doors in parking lots and driveways. Sometimes, they weren’t even deterred by the presence of a car’s owner.
In Atlanta last year, a 20-something-year-old woman was sitting in her white Lexus sedan when a man reached inside, snatched her .380-caliber Glock and ran away, according to a police report.
“If anything valuable is locked in the car, it’s likely to get stolen,” said Allison Anderman, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “That’s why law enforcement jurisdictions everywhere tell people don’t leave valuables in your car. A gun is a valuable.”
Lucius Boddie, 39, a youth coordinator in Atlanta, was enjoying a poolside cookout when thieves rummaged through his unlocked car in the parking lot and made off with his .40-caliber pistol. A witness said he saw a group of kids toting what was presumably Boddie’s bag when he heard one of them say, “there’s a gun in it,” according to the police report.
Benjamin Thompson, an Atlanta retiree who likes to fish, stashed a .22-caliber rifle underneath the backseat of his Dodge Ram pickup truck to “shoot snakes and things.” Last year, someone stole his rifle in the night. A week later, he caught two would-be thieves rifling through his truck again. He shot at them from his porch with a handgun.
When a reporter visited Thompson in August, brown tape covered the bullet holes on the front of his truck. A new rifle was underneath his back seat. Thompson said he wasn’t worried about what thieves might do with the gun they stole. “It ain’t nothing but a little .22,” he said.
Details in police reports obtained by The Trace show that guns are so prized that thieves sometimes take nothing else from the cars they plunder. In Colorado Springs, Colorado, last year a hunter told police that a thief took a shotgun and a box of ammo from his Jeep Cherokee while leaving several other valuables — including his wallet — behind.
Most stolen firearms are never recovered. In some cases, police reports show, owners couldn’t provide the most important identifying information: their gun’s serial number. When police did recover a gun, it was sometimes in connection to another crime. In Lexington, Kentucky, officers recovered a stolen gun after someone used it to fire a bullet through a wall into a neighboring apartment.
While the most commonly stolen firearms were handguns, thieves also took long guns, including assault-style rifles similar to the one used to massacre 49 people, and wound another 53, in an Orlando nightclub in June. Shotguns, loaded magazines, and boxes of ammunition were also reported stolen.
Reshaping gun laws
Many cities where gun thefts from cars increased sharply last year are in states whose elected leaders have passed laws that make it easier to buy a gun and to carry one on college campuses, in restaurants, and in other public spaces. Many have specifically removed restrictions against leaving firearms in vehicles.
The moves often came after intense lobbying by the NRA, which is in the middle of an ongoing state-by-state offensive aimed at pressuring lawmakers to normalize the carrying of guns in public.
In Nevada, a rule took effect in 2011 speeding up the background check process for prospective gun buyers, a measure supported by the NRA. Two years later, Republican Governor Brian Sandoval vetoed a measure that would have required background checks for private sales after the NRA got supporters to flood his office with so many calls that he had to set up an automated phone system allowing them to register their opposition. The governor instead signed legislation that made it easier for permit holders to carry more styles of handguns.
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The NRA’s influence continued to reshape state regulations last year, when lawmakers abolished a handgun registration requirement in the county that includes Las Vegas and extended a self-defense law known as the Castle Doctrine to occupied motor vehicles. The number of firearms stolen from vehicles in Las Vegas has more than doubled in the past three years, from 176 in 2012 to 360 in 2015.
In Texas, the NRA convinced elected leaders to make it easier to travel with firearms. A law that allows even unlicensed Texans to carry guns in their cars for protection came into force in 2005. Six years later, a law allowing people to keep guns in their locked cars at work also took effect, followed in 2013 by a measure that lets college students stash guns in their cars on campus. In Lubbock, Texas, reports of gun thefts from vehicles leaped about 190 percent, from 85 in 2006 to 245 in 2015. A similarly large increase happened in Austin, where thefts and losses rose from 129 to 377 over the same period.
After the most recent legislative session, in the spring, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal did something he hadn’t done in his entire term of office: He vetoed a gun bill.
The legislation would have opened up college campuses to legal carry. Despite this setback for gun rights supporters, they have achieved a remarkable amount. Since 2008, laws have gone into effect that allow licensed gun owners to keep firearms in cars while in any parking lot and carry guns in bars, churches, and some government buildings.
Reported gun thefts from cars in Atlanta have more than doubled over the last five years.
“We have an issue with our gun laws here,” said Atlanta police Deputy Chief Darryl Tolleson, complaining about where Georgians are allowed to carry their weapons, including public parks and unsecured areas at airports. “I’m a Second Amendment person, but that doesn’t make sense to me, that you should be allowed to carry weapons in those types of places.”
‘Get out of there’
The spate of crimes committed with Landen Boyd’s stolen pistol did not end with the murder at the Atlanta tavern.
Two days later, Eddie Pugh, a small-time drug dealer, received a call from a neighbor that sent him sprinting from his home in south Atlanta.
“They’re on the side of the building; they’re on the side of the building,” the neighbor said. “Oh, they got guns. Get out of there. Get out of there.”
Redding and several other masked men had piled out of a gold Chevy Impala in the parking lot of Pugh’s apartment complex and were advancing toward his front door, guns ready.
Pugh rushed outside, and saw the gunmen approaching, backlit by streetlamps. When they saw Pugh, they opened fire. A bullet tore through Pugh’s hip as he dashed around his apartment building and sought refuge beneath a staircase.
Redding and the other assailants rushed into Pugh’s apartment and started pawing through his cabinets. Pugh’s business associate, William Kellam, had been watching television in the living room but was now crouched in a closet, clutching an AK-47 rifle.
When one of the men walked into the room where Kellam was hiding, he pulled the trigger on the AK-47. One of the rounds struck Redding in his left shoulder. He dropped the Smith & Wesson, and fled.
About twenty minutes later, Redding checked into the emergency room at a hospital a few miles from the robbery. He lied about how he got shot, but investigators were suspicious. They seized his clothes and swabbed his mouth. DNA tests connected him to blood in Pugh’s apartment and on the Smith & Wesson recovered at the scene. Shell casings from the pistol provided it was same gun used to hold up McMillan outside the Standard and to shoot Henderson in the thigh.
On May 7, 2009, police arrested Redding for all three crimes. He had a “30” tattooed on his right cheek. He is serving a life sentence for murder.
Correction: This article and an accompanying graphic were updated to reflect new information provided by the Lubbock, Texas, police department about the number of guns stolen from vehicles in that city. The police department said the initial data it provided in response to a records request was incorrect: there were 245 incidents in 2015, not 349.