HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - With a surge of guns stolen out of cars, WHNT News 19 requested data from law enforcement across Madison County and reviewed dozens of cases. We found a sharp rise in thefts of guns from cars, but we also found that in close to 90% of cases, the vehicles involved were left unlocked. Plus, owners didn’t give law enforcement the serial numbers needed to track the guns down for nearly half of the weapons taken.
Lt. Brian Chaffin of the Madison County Sheriff’s Office says car break-ins look different now, in part, because, "There's not really a large market for stolen stereos anymore."
He and Lt. Stacy Bates of the Huntsville Police Department listed off all manner of targets for thieves who break into cars — from laptops to cell phones to weapons.
Among a national trend toward more guns getting stolen from cars, thoroughly reported by The Trace in September, we filed Open Records Requests and assembled data from the Huntsville Police Department, Madison Police Department, and the Madison County Sheriff's Office.
"We see a lot of it," admits Chaffin.
We found thieves have taken 223 guns out of cars across Madison County through September of this year. That's 25 guns every month. That rate is a 50% increase over last year and a 67% increase from the year before.
Our data review found 621 guns stolen from cars in the last three years. Huntsville saw the steepest rise of the three agencies we examined, going from 108 in ‘14, to 141 in ‘15, to 174 in the first nine months of ‘16.
We reviewed each individual case report from Madison. We found most of the time, the guns were left in an unlocked car.
In just shy of 89% of case files we reviewed, police did not list a use of force to get to the guns. In short, doors were left open for thieves.
"It's a crime of opportunity,” Chaffin said. “If someone leaves a car unlocked, it's easy."
Bates agreed in his own interview, "Most burglaries to cars are just crimes of opportunities. It's just someone looking for a quick score."
Chaffin describes the evenings of thieves. "They just check unlocked doors, walk around neighborhoods, open doors, and take what's in there."
In most of the cases we reviewed, the gun was the most valuable item stolen.
"That's probably going to be the first thing and possibly maybe the only thing they take," said Bates.
In the hands of thieves, guns become cash.
Chaffin notes, "Guns are a hot item on the street... Somebody steals a gun tonight, and they're at a gas station and they sell it in the parking lot of the gas station."
"You know the right people and you know the right places to go,” Bates concurs. “You could very easily move a firearm on the street illegally."
That's how many other criminals get their hands on guns.
Bates tells us, "At least 80-90% of the crimes that we cover that are firearms related, the firearm was not legally possessed."
Of course, firearms have serial numbers on them, which owners can provide to law enforcement to help track them back down.
"That serial number is so important to us on that firearm if you have one," Chaffin said.
Bates points out, "We can take that serial number. We can enter that into NCIC, and that's a national database."
But owners could only provide serial numbers for 56% of the weapons stolen in the cases we reviewed.
That makes it harder for law enforcement to return stolen guns — and to identify them when they show up in other crimes.
If you carry a gun in your car, law enforcement is not asking a lot. Write down your serial numbers and secure your weapons.
"With the community's help,” Lt. Chaffin tells us, “By locking your vehicles and removing items from your vehicles, that helps us 100%."
Bates adds, "We just encourage anyone who is going to possess a firearm, just be responsible, be a responsible gun owner."
At the end of the day, Chaffin says,"It just takes a few seconds, just what's in my car that somebody would steal?"
There's at least one deadly answer.