How unsecured vehicles contribute to Charleston's gun thefts 

Unlocked and Loaded

On Aug. 19 around 10 p.m., officers with the Charleston Police Department spotted a suspicious young man stepping through a fence behind an apartment complex. Earlier in the month, these officers had responded to a robbery in the same area where two armed men held up a pizza delivery driver, according to an incident report. Noticing the officers, the young man began walking faster in the opposite direction with his hand stuck at his waistband. When the police car's blue lights flashed on, the young man began to run.

Racing along the fence line, two of the pursuing officers shouted, "Gun. Gun. He just threw a gun," as the suspect allegedly tossed a silver and black pistol into a nearby property. He soon stopped running, dropped to the ground, and was taken into custody. Officers recovered the weapon, and a quick trace revealed it had been reported stolen to the Charleston police.

Five days later, while conducting a search warrant related to an armed robbery investigation, detectives would locate a semi-automatic handgun reported stolen in May, sitting in the top dresser drawer in a suspect's bedroom. According to an incident report, the gun allegedly fit the description of the weapon used in a recent robbery. Of course, not all stories of recovered weapons in the city are as dramatic.

Another incident report claims an employee at a downtown restaurant took the opportunity to snatch a pistol out of a coworker's bag. He wrapped the weapon in a towel and hid it in a nearby parking garage. The gun was soon tracked down by police and returned.

In late July, a West Ashley woman stepped onto her back porch to find a 9mm pistol lying outside. A week later, employees at a local thrift store were sorting through donations when they found a loaded .22 handgun tucked in the pocket of a gray suit jacket. These are of course isolated incidents that usually make their way into the weekly blotter. With no apparent victims and no clear sign of malicious intent, these are just strange, unexplained occurrences that make us shrug our shoulders and wonder what happened. These are just a few of the stories of how stolen and missing weapons in Charleston are recovered. But another part of the story is how they go missing in the first place.

An examination of incident reports filed by the Charleston Police Department found a total of 29 firearms reported stolen from July 24-Aug. 29. Some of these incidents are as simple as a man setting his bag down outside of a bar downtown, only to return to find the bag and the pistol inside missing. Seven of the weapons reported missing were claimed to have been taken during home burglaries. But instances such as these only account for a portion of firearm thefts in the city.

According to one incident report, a victim left his vehicle unlocked with his keys still in the ignition when it was stolen with his handgun sitting inside. Another report recorded the account of a man who believes his shotgun was removed from the unlocked tool box in the bed of his truck while he was parked at a department store. One man told police that he believed his car was locked at the time his pistol was stolen, but police found no signs of forced entry.

Of the 29 guns reported stolen over this period of the summer, 17 were located in vehicles at the time of theft. This number includes 14 pistols and three shotguns. And all but three of the owners who had their weapons stolen either told police that their vehicle was left unlocked or they were unsure if the firearm was properly secured in the vehicle.

To put these numbers into perspective, police in Gainesville, Fla. — a city roughly equal in population to Charleston — reported a total of 19 firearms stolen from vehicles, many unlocked, over a three-month period this year. In Charleston, the number of reported gun thefts from vehicles will reach that total in roughly half the time.

"I cannot say it any plainer: You have to lock your vehicle. If you're not locking your vehicle, then you're absolutely inviting crime into the area," Officer Ben Tobias with the Gainesville Police Department told Jenese Harris with WJXT News 4 in Jacksonville.

According to a 2012 report compiled by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the majority of property crimes between 2005-2010 involving stolen firearms occurred in the South. During this period, households in the South accounted for 37 percent of all households in the United States, were subject to 56 percent of all burglaries and 59 percent of other property crimes involving the theft of a firearm, according to the study. Nationwide less than 20 percent of the weapons reported stolen during this five-year period were recovered by the time the report was released in 2012. During that year in South Carolina, 5,718 were registered as stolen, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

So going back to the wise advice of Officer Tobias, it's important for everyone to remember his words to WJXT News 4: "Thieves look for the path of least resistance, and by leaving valuables in an unlocked car, it almost invites these criminals to commit such an easy crime."

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