At a recent Brookhaven City Council meeting, Police Chief Gary Yandura gave a brief report on the department’s activities. A fundraising 5K to benefit a police program was scheduled in the next few days, traffic at Montgomery Elementary School seemed to be running smoothly at the start of the school year with help from the traffic unit.
But one final item stood out to council members. Yandura reported that on Aug. 12, a day before the council meeting, an AR-15-style rifle was reported stolen from the backseat of a person’s pickup truck while it was parked in the driveway of a house on Becket Drive.
The victim, who lives in Alabama, had parked his vehicle at the house on Aug. 7 before he headed to Maryland for a vacation, according to police.
When he returned Aug. 12, he noticed the $400 rifle, kept in a military case, was gone. The victim told police his car was unlocked the entire time he was gone, according to a police report.
“Any valuable, especially a firearm, should not be left in an unlocked vehicle,” Brookhaven Deputy Chief Brandon Gurley said in an interview. “We are inviting criminals to come into our community, into our neighborhoods, because we make it easy.”
The Brookhaven victim did not say exactly what kind of firearm was stolen from his car, other than it was a high-caliber rifle that he described as an AR-15-style weapon, Gurley said. He also did not have its serial numbers. The bullets the gun uses can pierce an officer’s body armor. It is the first known high-caliber weapon of that type reported stolen in the city, he said.
“Most of what we see taken are handguns. This was unique and different,” he said.
This year alone, dozens of guns from unlocked cars have been reported stolen in Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and Buckhead, according to spokespersons from each department. But data shows the numbers of weapons stolen from cars are on a downward trend.
Georgia does not require private gun owners to report stolen guns.
The issue is not just occurring in metro Atlanta. In Nashville, 20 guns were stolen from unlocked cars in one week in August, according to WSMV-TV.
In Charleston, S.C., 40 of 44 handguns stolen from vehicles between January and July were from unlocked cars, according to an ABC affiliate. In Mobile, Ala., approximately 1,200 guns were stolen from vehicles last year with 80 percent of those being taken from unlocked cars and trucks, according to a report at AL.com.
The prevalence of people leaving high-valuable items in their unlocked cars has essentially put a target on those communities for criminals who see these areas as easy pickings, Gurley said.
None of the guns stolen in Brookhaven have been tracked to any other crimes in metro Atlanta, Gurley said, but the likelihood they end up in another criminal’s hands is significant.
An Aug. 25 New York Times report investigated how firearms stolen in the U.S. end up on the streets of Jamaica, where they are used in killings. In Jamaica, 80 percent of its homicides are committed with firearms and most of the guns come from the U.S. where lax gun laws help facilitate the carnage, according to the report.
Between February and August, there were 23 guns stolen in Brookhaven. Of that total, 18 were stolen from vehicles. The majority of these were from unlocked cars, Gurley said.
In neighboring Dunwoody, seven firearms have been reported stolen in the past six months; three of those being stolen from unlocked vehicles, said Sgt. Robert Parsons, spokesperson for the Dunwoody Police Department.
“We are begging people to stop leaving things in cars that leave you a target for theft,” he said.
“We beg people to not leave firearms in their vehicles,” he said. “Because once they get in the hands of the wrong people, it can result in tragic results.”
Parsons said criminals like to come to Dunwoody because they understand people here tend to leave valuables in their cars and often leave them unlocked. The city and police department have initiated community programs, such as at Perimeter Mall, where signs are posted through the parking lot urging patrons to “Lock, Take, Hide.”
Parsons said people may have a belief that that because they live in a nice neighborhood and city, “it won’t happen to me.”
In Sandy Springs, there have been 412 reported thefts from autos so far in 2019. Of that total, 30 firearms were stolen from vehicles, with most taken from unlocked cars and trucks, according to Sgt. Samuel Worsham, spokesperson for the Sandy Springs Police Department.
“We try to remind everyone to keep their vehicles locked, remove all valuables, and take the keys with them,” Worsham said. “So many of the vehicles are left unlocked and it makes it easy for thieves. Sometimes people get comfortable or complacent and forget that they may be a victim of theft.”
In the Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 2, which includes Buckhead, there have been 146 guns, ammunition or holsters stolen from vehicles so far this year. How many were stolen from unlocked cars was not readily available.
Maj. Barry Shaw, commander of Zone 2, said car break-ins throughout Atlanta are down 11 percent; in Zone 2 they are down 20 percent. But if you are a victim, you don’t always care about those numbers, he said.
Slowing or stopping the stealing takes a partnership, Shaw said: police working areas where crimes are reported to catch the offenders; the courts and judges sentencing the criminals when caught; and residents not rewarding criminals by leaving valuables in their cars.
“It’s like fishing,” he said. “If I go to a lake and I’m not catching anything … I will go elsewhere.”
Guns being stolen from cars keep officers on edge from the fear they will be used to seriously hurt someone, Shaw said.
Shaw said he knows there are some places people cannot carry their firearm, so they will leave them in their car. They say they want the gun for their protection, but at the same time they are not responsible enough to protect others by ensuring their gun is not stolen, he said.
“If you are going to carry a gun in your car and not take it inside, then you need to secure it in the car,” he said. Lock boxes and other special gun locks are readily available, he said.
Shaw stressed he was not victim-blaming, Even Atlanta Police officers have had guns stolen from their vehicles, he said. And while the APD will continue to pursue criminals, getting help from the citizens would also help, he said.
“Quite frankly, if everyone would stop leaving valuables and guns in their cars, then this problem would go away,” he said.