Cars are a bad place to keep valuables—especially if those valuables are weapons. But every day, U.S. gun owners store their Glocks, their Smith & Wesson 9mm pistols, their .22 rifles, and plenty more firearms in their cars as they go to work or the grocery store. A jimmied door, a broken window, and someone can steal a gun that can later be used to commit more crimes.
These scenarios are the focus of a new study by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern University that found thieves steal between 300,000 and 600,000 firearms in the U.S. every year. That’s 1,600 stolen guns every day, or more than one per minute. The full study will not be released until next year, but The Guardian US and The Trace published early results from the survey this week that found stolen guns often end up at crime scenes.
Take the case of Landen Boyd. Trace’s story followed this Atlanta resident’s handgun from the time someone stole it out of his truck while he was away at work on a construction site to when it resurfaced about three years later at a bloody shootout. In all, the gun would be used in at least three crimes. Landen had left the gun in his Chevrolet Silverado, Trace reported, and he returned at the end of the workday to find his window smashed and his 9mm pistol gone.
In 14 of 15 cities that provided data for the study, police departments reported a 40 percent average yearly increase in the amount of guns stolen from cars. The cities with the most gun thefts from vehicles are, in order: Atlanta, Georgia; Jacksonville, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada. The rise in the number of stolen guns coincides with the rise of guns sales in the U.S.; pistol manufactures made 600,000 firearms in 2001, and more than 3.6 million in 2014, according to Trace.
Here are a few scenarios Trace provided of stolen guns ending up at crime scenes:
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.
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.
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.
Another account was that of Benjamin Thompson, a retiree in Atlanta. Thompson keeps a .22-caliber rifle beneath the backseat of his truck, which he uses to “shoot snakes and things,” he told Trace. Last year, it was stolen. A week later, Thompson found someone trying to break into the truck again, so he shot at the thief from his porch with a handgun. A Trace reporter visited Thompson in August and found the retiree had a new rifle in the backseat. When asked if he worried what thieves would do with his stolen gun, Thompson said he didn’t feel it mattered because the rifle “ain’t nothing but a little .22.”
But guns like that often end up in the “Iron Pipeline,” the name given to the firearm trafficking corridor that arms criminals in East Coast cities with stolen guns from the South and Midwest. Atlanta, where Thompson lives, is the pipeline’s largest supplier.
As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance wrote (also based on Trace’s reporting) while the overall number of Americans who own guns has gone down in the past decade, a relatively small contingent, about 7.7 million people, own an average of 17 guns each. These “super-owners” amount to 3 percent of the population, but keep half of the country’s firearms in their homes—and their cars.
The newest study attributes much of this disparity to the National Rifle Association’s successful politicking. The rise in gun ownership and gun thefts in the U.S. has coincided with the NRA’s aggressive campaign to loosen gun restrictions. In Nevada, that meant speeding up background checks and extending the “Castle Doctrine”—which provides more legal leeway to people who use guns for self-defense in their homes—to include cars. In Texas, that meant making it easier for people to travel with their guns, and allowing them to keep their weapons locked in cars while at work or in parking lots on college campuses. The overall effect has been one of gun proliferation—both in the hands of legal owners, and the hands of criminals who steal those guns.
In the case of the gun owned by Boyd Landen, the gun owner Trace described, his Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun was used by one gang member to rob a bartender, shoot another bartender in the leg, then shoot at a drug dealer.