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Gun Theft

Gun Thieves Increasingly Target Cars. Police Say a Georgia Duo Hit 161 Vehicles Before Getting Caught.

"This is an epidemic,” said one law enforcement expert.

Police in Georgia announced this week the arrest of a man and a woman accused of breaking into vehicles in metro Atlanta in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign to steal firearms. Authorities said the duo had stolen more than 40 firearms in 161 vehicle break-ins across dozens of locations since January. That means that about one out of every four cars they ransacked had a gun in it.

The case highlights a nationwide trend that experts say stems from increasingly lax state rules around storing and carrying guns. Legislators in many states — including Texas, Georgia, Nevada, and Kansas — have passed laws in recent years to make it easier for gun owners to go armed into public spaces, shoot in self defense from behind the wheel, or stash weapons in their cars. As those statutes pave the way for gun owners to bring their weapons along whenever they leave home,  some of those owners wind up stowing their firearms in the glovebox, the center console, or under their seats — where they are ripe for the plucking.

A review by The Trace of Atlanta Police Department data found that the city recorded at least 850 guns stolen from cars in 2015, almost double the number reported in 2009. In Savannah, Georgia’s third-largest city, gun thefts from cars rose nearly 30 percent higher in 2015 over the year before, from 140 to 181.

At the Cobb County police headquarters outside Atlanta on Monday, officials declined to say during a news conference how many of the guns alleged to have been stolen by Elisha Ross, 22, and Ayana Forest, 25, during their seven-month burglary spree had been recovered. But the Atlanta Journal Constitution cited officials as saying it did not appear the guns had been used in crimes — at least not yet.

Authorities launched an investigation in February after the thieves broke into cars and trucks parked outside fire stations in Cobb County.  The couple found another hunting ground in cars parked outside he gun manufacturer Glock, Inc., whose American  headquarters is located in the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna.

Dustin Davey, a spokesman for the Smyrna Fire Department, said that firefighters are not allowed to bring their guns into the stations there but that, under state law, are allowed to store them in their vehicles.

“It becomes an extension of your home at that point,” Davey said. “We have a gun-permitting process in the state, but that’s only for concealed carry. You’re still allowed to carry in specific conditions in your vehicle without a permit.”

The increase in guns stolen from cars spreads far beyond Georgia. In Austin, Texas, reports of guns stolen from cars have trended upward since 2008, climbing from about 120 that year to nearly 380 in 2015. In Jacksonville, Florida, the numbers had stayed in the 300s- to 400s-range since 2006 before reaching a record high in 2015, with 560 guns reported stolen from vehicles.

“These are staggering statistics that raise an eyebrow and cause great concern for law enforcement,” Frank Fernandez, the chairman of the firearms committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), told The Trace. “Out of the all the things we’re seeing, the most consistent problem is thefts from motor vehicles, and many of these weapons are being used in violent crimes, armed robberies and assaults.”

The IACP, an organization consisting of some 20,000 high-ranking law enforcement officials, has made combating guns thefts from cars a major focus heading into 2018. This October, the group plans to premiere a public service announcement in Philadelphia at the group’s annual conference, Fernandez said. The spot will urge gun owners to adopt more secure storage practices by showing what sometimes happens after a gun goes missing. One scene will feature children finding a stolen gun on the street. When the screen goes black, a gunshot goes off.  The sound of crying ensues.

The scenario presented in the ad is reflected in real events. News stories of stolen guns falling into young hands abound. Last August, a 15-year-old in Mountville, Pennsylvania, was fatally shot in the head by a friend who was showing him a 9mm pistol he had swiped from a vehicle a day earlier. In February, a 15-year-old girl in Mobile, Alabama, was believed to have been killed by her boyfriend with a gun taken in a break-in of an unlocked car during the city’s Mardis Gras parade. Two months later, a group of juveniles in Akron, Ohio, were playing with a gun stolen from a car when it accidentally went off, killing a 17-year-old.

Asked about the recent arrests in Georgia, Fernandez said he was not surprised by how many guns the thieves took. “People are leaving guns in cars in record numbers, and people breaking into cars is trending,” he said. “This is an epidemic.”