Gun Thefts from Cars: The Largest Source of Stolen Guns
By: Megan J. O’Toole, Deputy Research Director, Jay Szkola, Sarah Burd-Sharps 5.9.2022
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In cities that report crime data to the FBI:
- On average, at least one gun is stolen from a car every 15 minutes.
- Thefts from cars divert guns away from the legal market, making them particularly dangerous.
- A decade ago, less than a quarter of gun thefts were from cars; in 2020, over half were.
- 2019–2020 saw recent history’s biggest spike in gun thefts from cars, in unison with spikes in gun sales and homicides, and the speed of crime gun recoveries.
- Cars parked at residences (driveways, outside homes, etc.) are the most common source of stolen guns, demonstrating the importance of securely storing guns at all times and locations.
Gun Thefts from Cars are on the Rise
On July 22, 2021, a gun was stolen from an unlocked car in Riverside, Florida. Twelve days later, the gun was used in the murder of a 27-year-old US Coast Guard member as she attempted to intervene in a neighborhood car burglary.1Corley Peel, “Gun Stolen from Car in Riverside Entered into Evidence in Coast Guard Member’s Murder,” WJXT, August 18, 2021, https://bit.ly/3IhsrCw.
The majority of gun homicides and assaults involve illegal guns.2Anthony Fabio et al., “Gaps Continue in Firearm Surveillance: Evidence from a Large U.S. City Bureau of Police,” Social Medicine 10, no. 1 (2016): 13–21, https://socialmedicine.info/index.php/socialmedicine/article/view/852; Daniel C. Semenza et al., “Firearm Availability, Homicide, and the Context of Structural Disadvantage,” Homicide Studies, (September 2021): 1–21, https://doi.org/10.1177/10887679211043806. But where do these guns come from, and how are they getting into dangerous hands, where they are then too often used in acts of violence? New research from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund finds that in cities that report data to the FBI, gun thefts from cars are now the largest source of stolen guns—one that continues rising in parallel with rising rates of gun sales and violence.
To answer these questions, Everytown researchers analyzed FBI crime data spanning 271 small- to large-size cities across 38 states.3Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of FBI National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data, 2020, and American Community Survey (ACS) population data, 2019, accessed December 2021. Analysis used data from all cities with both a population of 65,000+ people and complete 2020 data (i.e., 12 months of data reported). Populations were limited to 65,000+ to make use of single year population datasets. States with cities included are: AL (1), AR (5), AZ (4), CO (17), CT (7), DE (1), GA (5), HI (1), IA (9), ID (3), IL (1), IN (4), KS (4), KY (3), MA (16), MI (16), MN (7), MO (6), MS (1), MT (2), NC (13), ND (2), NH (2), NM (2), NV (3), NY (1), OH (9), OK (4), OR (8), RI (4), SC (6), SD (2), TN (9), TX (45), UT (9), VA (11), WA (19), and WI (9). One-hundred-forty-nine of those cities (from 29 states) submitted 10 years of complete data and were included in longitudinal analyses. Collectively, these cities cover 49 million people. This analysis revealed that in 2020, an estimated 77,000 guns were reported stolen across these cities alone.4Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of NIBRS data, 2020, and ACS population data, 2019, accessed December 2021. Overall gun thefts include those from cars, pickpocketing, purse-snatching, shoplifting, buildings, all other types of larceny, robbery, and burglary. Gun theft incident counts were multiplied by the average number of guns stolen per gun theft incident (1.5, per Hemenway et al., 2017 & Cook, 2018). David Hemenway, Deborah Azrael, and Matthew Miller, “Whose Guns Are Stolen? The Epidemiology of Gun Theft Victims,” Injury Epidemiology 4, no. 1 (December 2017): 1–5, https://doi.org/10.1186/s40621-017-0109-8; Philip J. Cook, “Gun Theft and Crime,” Journal of Urban Health 95 (2018): 305–12, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-018-0253-7. This count is likely a conservative estimate since only 15 states require gun owners to report lost and stolen guns,5Of states with cities included in this study, CO, CT, DE, HI, IL, MA, MI, NY, OH, OR, RI, and VA have laws requiring reporting of lost and stolen guns. The states with these laws that are not included in this study are CA, MD, and NJ. so many missing guns go unreported.6Fabio et al., “Gaps Continue in Firearm Surveillance”; Cook, “Gun Theft and Crime.” While guns can be stolen in a variety of ways (e.g., pickpocketing, burglary, robbery), in 2020, over half (52 percent) were stolen from cars.7Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of NIBRS data, 2011–2019, and ACS population data, 2011-2019, accessed December 2021. In effect, an average of at least one gun is stolen from a car every 15 minutes, amounting to an estimated 40,000 guns stolen from cars in 2020 across these 271 cities.8Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of NIBRS data, 2020, and ACS population data, 2019, accessed December 2021. This is a stark increase from 10 years earlier, when the majority of gun thefts were from burglaries (45 percent), and under a quarter (24 percent) were from cars.9Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of NIBRS data, 2011–2020, and ACS population data, 2011-2019, accessed December 2021. In fact, the past decade’s overall increase in gun thefts is driven by the rise in gun thefts from cars.
A decade ago, less than a quarter of gun thefts in 149 cities were from cars—in 2020, over half were.
Why are gun thefts from cars on the rise?
Data clearly shows that gun thefts from cars are on the rise, but more research is needed to understand exactly what’s driving this increase. In the meantime, descriptive trends point to a few likely—and unlikely—answers. First, it doesn’t seem to be associated with an increase in thefts from cars in general. In fact, the overall rate of thefts from cars (not gun-specific) has decreased somewhat over the past decade (–15 percent), while the rate of gun thefts from cars has soared (+225 percent) in cities that report data to the FBI.10Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of NIBRS data, 2011–2020, and ACS population data, 2011–2019, accessed December 2021. In 2011, there were 166,707 thefts (not gun-specific) from vehicles (775 per 100,000 people) across the 149 cities analyzed. In 2020 there were 153,699 (659 per 100,000 people). In 2011, there were 3,731 incidents of gun theft from vehicles (17 per 100,000 people); In 2020, there were 13,148 (56 per 100,000 people). Second, the rise in gun thefts from cars is not likely associated with cars now being parked in different or more dangerous locations. Rather, consistently over the past 10 years, 41 percent of gun thefts from cars in these 149 cities have happened at residences, whether the driveway or near the home of the gun owner or others.11Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of NIBRS data, 2011–2020, and ACS population data, 2011–2019, accessed December 2021. Other gun theft locations include roads (20 percent), parking lots (28 percent), and other/unknown (11 percent). Residences remained the most common gun theft location across the entire 10-year data span.
Cars parked outside residences are the leading location of gun thefts from cars.
Some police chiefs speculate that a combination of unlocked cars and increasing numbers of young people engaging in this particular crime type may be relevant.12“Responsible Gun Owners Should Heed Arlington Police Chief’s Warning,” Dallas News, August 25, 2021, https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/editorials/2021/08/14/responsible-gun-owners-should-head-arlington-police-chiefs-warning/; Emma Parkhouse, “Stolen Guns from Car Break-Ins Can Get into the Wrong Hands, Horry Co. Police Chief Says,” WPDE, March 17, 2022, https://wpde.com/news/local/stolen-guns-car-break-ins-horry-county-police-department-homes-neighbors-community-march-2022. Cities located in states with particularly weak gun laws are associated with greater rates of gun thefts from cars.13There is significant negative correlation (r = –0.389, p < 0.000) between the strength of gun laws as measured by Everytown’s Gun Safety Policies Save Lives, and the rate of incidents of gun theft from cars in the 271 cities that reported data to the FBI in 2020. In many of these cities, high rates of gun ownership and laws that make it easier to take guns out of homes create conditions under which gun thefts from cars may be more likely.14Terry Schell et al., “State-Level Estimates of Household Firearm Ownership,” RAND Corporation, April 22, 2020, https://www.rand.org/research/gun-policy/gun-ownership.html. Further supporting this trend, the five cities with the highest rates of gun thefts from cars are all in states with particularly weak gun laws.
Five Cities with the Highest Rates of Gun Thefts from Cars
|City||Rate per 100,000 People|
|1. Memphis, TN||193.6|
|2. Chattanooga, TN||193.1|
|3. Columbia, SC||172.6|
|4. North Charleston, SC||165.0|
|5. Warner Robins, GA||162.9|
The trend in gun thefts from cars since 2010 is shown below for 149 small- to large-size cities, located in over half of US states. Gun thefts from cars have gone up in most of these cities over this period.
Explore Gun Thefts from Cars Over Time
Gun thefts from cars have been trending upward for much of the last decade, but the sharpest increase occurred at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, when gun sales and violence notably spiked as well. In the decade prior to the pandemic, an average of 13.5 million guns were sold annually, but in 2020, this number jumped to 22 million.15Daniel Nass and Champe Barton, “How Many Guns Did Americans Buy Last Month? We’re Tracking the Sales Boom,” The Trace, February 1, 2022, https://www.thetrace.org/2020/08/gun-sales-estimates/. Guns more quickly showed up at crime scenes as well. In 2020, 306,135 guns were recovered and traced by law enforcement, and the number of these that were purchased within the last three months nearly doubled.16Everytown analysis of ATF Firearms Trace Data 2019–2020. https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/data-statistics. In 2019, 19,586 guns were recovered in a crime within three months of being purchased; in 2020 there were 38,377. Similarly, an average of 13,110 people died by gun homicide each year in the decade pre-pandemic, but this number spiked to 19,995 in 2020.17Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, WONDER Online Database, Underlying Cause of Death: Gun Homicide, including Legal Intervention, 2010–2020. A yearly average was developed using 10 years of data: 2010 to 2019. Researchers are still learning what’s driving these associations, but a natural consequence of increased gun ownership, such as the pattern we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, is an increase in gun thefts. And as opposed to other types of thefts, gun thefts in particular put families, schools, and entire communities at risk, should the stolen gun then be used in a shooting.
Explore Gun Thefts from Cars in 2020
With gun ownership comes responsibility. Commonsense gun violence prevention initiatives, including secure storage laws, lost and stolen reporting laws, public awareness campaigns—such as BE SMART—and devices that make it easier to securely store guns in cars, can contribute to responsible gun ownership, preventing thefts from cars and the acts of violence that can follow.
More specifically, states should pass gun safety laws requiring that guns be securely stored and not visible when left unattended in cars. States including California, Connecticut, and Oregon have already done so, and can serve as examples.18Cal. Penal Code § 25140; Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-38g; O.R.S. § 166.395(1)(b)(B). To ensure guns are not accessed, used, or stolen by unauthorized persons, individual gun owners should not leave guns in cars; if they must, they should lock their vehicles and securely store their guns out of plain view, and immediately report guns as missing in case of theft. Finally, policymakers, local leaders, law enforcement, educators, community members, and gun owners have a responsibility to build public awareness around the importance of, and best practices for, secure storage in cars, especially at a time when gun thefts from cars are at an all-time high, and carry the additional risk of fueling future violence.
Megan J. O’Toole, Deputy Research Director
Meg’s work at Everytown focuses on city gun violence, violence intervention programs, and police violence. Prior to joining Everytown, she worked at the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay’s Research and Evaluation Center, Columbia School of Social Work, and the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. Meg holds a PhD in psychology and law from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she also serves as an adjunct professor.
Jay Szkola is currently the Data Scientist at Everytown for Gun Safety. Jay is a PhD candidate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice / the Graduate Center, City University of New York in Criminal Justice and Criminology. His research interests involve spatial-temporal patterns of crime, gun violence interventions, credible messengers, and concealed carry permitting.
Sarah combines her background of work on poverty, gender equity, and economic empowerment at the UN and the Social Science Research Council to lead Everytown’s research department. Sarah is co-author of two volumes of The Measure of America (Columbia University Press, 2008 and NYU Press, 2010) and pioneering work on youth disconnection. At Everytown, she has co-authored four peer-reviewed journal articles and countless reports and appears regularly in the media to help shape the conversation about our gun violence epidemic.