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Front Page - Friday, January 17, 2020

Want a free gun? Just jiggle a few car-door handles

Nashville is giving away guns to criminals, and it’s the legislature’s fault.

I should probably clarify that statement.

By “Nashville,” I don’t mean the Metro government, which as far as I know has no program for arming bad guys. I refer instead to the residents of the city.

“Giving away” does not mean they are walking around passing out firearms. But they are leaving guns in cars from which they are being stolen in ever increasing numbers.

As for the legislature, it’s partly to blame. More on that in a bit.

Metro police figures go back only to 2012 for such thefts, but the trend is clear. That year, 152 guns were stolen from cars. In the succeeding years the number has steadily ticked up, reaching 747 in 2019.

For those of a statistical bent, that’s a 391% increase.

“It’s all due to people leaving guns in vehicles and then not locking their doors,” Metro Police spokeswoman Kris Mumford told The Tennessean.

Well, not all of it. Sometimes a crook has to go to the trouble of breaking into a car to get the gun inside. But Nashvillians are incredibly accommodating when it comes to vehicle thieves. Figures reported in The Tennessean reveal about 65% of the 2,804 cars stolen in Nashville last year had the keys available.

For purposes of comparison, I checked with the Knoxville police for their stats on guns stolen from vehicles. The figures I got don’t go back as far as Nashville’s. But in 2018 there were 92 such thefts, says Scott Erland, a spokesman for the department. Of those, the car was open or unlocked at least 32 times, with the entry method unknown 46 times.

Complete figures for 2019 weren’t available, but there had been 72 gun thefts from vehicles there through Dec. 4.

Obviously, Nashville has more people than Knoxville. But not enough to account for theft numbers much, much higher.

“These are ultimately crimes of opportunity,” Erland says. “And it is particularly irresponsible to leave a gun in a vehicle if the car is not locked and the firearm is not stored in a locked compartment within the vehicle.”

No kidding.

I’ve been mulling how to get people to stop giving guns to criminals. My first thought is a law that would charge anyone who negligently allowed a gun to be stolen.

And guess what? Legislators tried to do just that last year – to address a situation they had admittedly helped make worse.

“We passed a bill a couple of years ago where citizens – law-abiding citizens – could keep a gun in their car, like an extension of their home,” State Rep. Mark White told members of a House subcommittee in April.

“A lot of criminals know now, since we passed the bill, that a gun may be in the car,” White said. A car that may even be unlocked, with the gun sitting in plain view.

So he sponsored a bill that would have made it a Class A misdemeanor with a minimum $500 fine “for a person to leave a firearm, loaded firearm, or firearm ammunition in a motor vehicle or boat that is unattended or with a person under eighteen (18) years of age if the firearm is not locked within the trunk, glove box, or interior.”

The intent, White said, was “just to make it a little bit harder for a criminal to get ahold of a gun.”

No problem there. Tennessee legislators sometimes act as if they’d like nothing better than a state filled with residents packing twin six-shooters a la the Lone Ranger, but even they draw the line at weaponizing crooks.

There was concern about White’s bill, and another bill along similar lines.

“I appreciate your intent,” State Rep. Bruce Griffey told White. But Griffey said he wondered if there might be “another way to get the results we’re looking for.” One that invoked a civil penalty, say, rather than a criminal one.

Fair enough, and an easy change. How about a $1,000 fine?

The House bills and their Senate companions fizzled last year. Let’s see if legislators will do their duty to help set things right this year, or if we’ll just continue the great gun giveaway.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com