NOEL KING, HOST:
And now a story about unintended consequences. The number of guns stolen from cars in the U.S. is spiking. This is especially true in states like Tennessee, which have growing gun rights laws. They make it easier for people to keep guns in their cars. NPR's Martin Kaste brings us this story. And just a quick warning here - you will hear the sound of gunshots in this segment.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: For the last couple of years, Tennessee has been caught in something of a vicious cycle. On one hand, people are scared of getting robbed in their cars or worse. Paul Jividen works at Royal Range USA. It's a gun store and firing range on the south side of Nashville.
PAUL JIVIDEN: Just right down the street, there's been several carjacking...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
KASTE: Those gunshots are from the store's practice range.
You said they've been carjackings around here.
JIVIDEN: There's been carjackings just less than a mile down the road from here. So, yes, there's very much been an increase in desire for safety.
KASTE: And he sees that desire as people come in to buy handguns to have with them in their cars. But here's the vicious cycle part. As more people carry guns in their cars, more of them are leaving guns in their cars to be stolen by the next wave of criminals, especially youth.
BLAINE WHITED: The kids know where they're at. They understand, we check enough door handles, we're going to get something.
KASTE: That's Nashville police Lieutenant Blaine Whited, who runs a special task force created last year to combat rising juvenile crime. He says people are getting too comfortable with their guns, leaving them in unlocked cars where they're easily swiped.
WHITED: The crime overall is not new, but the volume, the amount that we're seeing is new. It's enough to shock you.
KASTE: Six hundred fifty-nine guns were reported stolen out of vehicles in Nashville last year. That's a 70% jump over 2016. And police say those guns often end up being used in other crimes, such as the murder in February of a local musician. In fact, right before this interview, Lieutenant Whited was getting news of another incident involving a juvenile offender who just escaped custody in a nearby county.
WHITED: During his escape, he was able to lay his hands on a brand new Toyota Tacoma pickup truck that was unlocked. There was a key along with a loaded Springfield .45 handgun. He's now been able to obtain not only a car but a loaded firearm.
KASTE: So why is this happening? Why are so many people leaving guns in unlocked cars?
G A HARDAWAY: It is crazy.
KASTE: State Representative G.A. Hardaway is a Democrat from Memphis, and he has a theory. Gun thefts from cars in his city are even worse than in Nashville - almost 1,300 last year, more than twice the number in 2015. But the thefts are rising statewide. And he traces all of this back to legislation that he and his colleagues passed earlier this decade.
HARDAWAY: There was agreement that there was a need for Tennesseans to be able to protect themselves within their cars.
KASTE: So the legislature made it easier to keep guns in cars by eliminating the requirements for permits and safety training. You still need a permit to walk around with a gun, but your car is now considered an extension of your home. No permits or training needed. Hardaway supported that change at the time, not realizing what it would lead to.
HARDAWAY: It didn't cross my mind that we would have that many stupid people with weapons in their cars. But these are the unintended consequences that we have an obligation to go back and fix.
KASTE: The fix he has in mind is relatively modest - some sort of penalty for people who leave unsecured guns in cars. He suggested it be a misdemeanor punishable with a fine. But this year at the Tennessee state Capitol, there was little interest in Hardaway's fix. Beth Joslin Roth says the politicians here are not about to admit that looser gun laws may have created a crime problem.
BETH JOSLIN ROTH: It would be political kryptonite to make an assertion like that.
KASTE: She's policy director for the Safe Tennessee Project, a gun violence prevention group. She says tighter rules for gun owners just aren't in the cards here. If anything, the trend is in the opposite direction.
ROTH: Even with our lax gun laws, over the last several years, there has been a continued push to further loosen them.
KASTE: In fact, earlier this month, the legislature voted to reduce the training that people need to walk around with a concealed gun. Instead of the current requirement of eight hours of in-person training with live firing on a range, it'll be enough to watch a video and take a test online. These decreasing requirements are part of a larger push toward something called permit-less carry or constitutional carry. Other states are further along in this direction. And Republican State Representative Micah Van Huss wants Tennessee to join them.
MICAH VAN HUSS: I want to uninfringe the laws that infringe our constitutional rights. I want to get rid of them. I think it's unconstitutional to require a permit.
KASTE: Van Huss chairs a key subcommittee on constitutional rights. Not only does he oppose gun permits, he was also against Hardaway's bill to punish people who don't lock up their guns.
VAN HUSS: I just don't want to criminalize law-abiding citizens. I understand there's problems where criminals are breaking into cars and getting guns, but, you know, I don't make criminals out of law-abiding citizens.
KASTE: He says the answer is to come down harder on the thieves. And that's just what the legislature has now done, approving a new 30-day minimum sentence for the theft of a firearm. Pastor Larry Rayford doesn't like the sound of that. He has a ministry in a neighborhood a couple of miles from the state Capitol. He says he often encounters the young men who are affected by guns stolen from cars.
LARRY RAYFORD: It's a real hurting situation. We're having children, you know, that are dying or that are murdering people or are catching huge murder cases now because these guns.
KASTE: Rayford doesn't excuse kids who steal guns. But he says the fact that everyone now seems to have one in the car makes them think they need to have one, too.
RAYFORD: Not only do we have children that are stealing guns, but we also have children that are scared for their life. So now they're trying to protect theyself and they think the best way to protect theyself is to have a firearm.
KASTE: And he's baffled by the apparent indifference of gun owners who make it so easy for kids to get their hands on the guns. That's actually something you hear people saying at the firing ranges, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
KASTE: Back at Royal Range USA, Paul Jividen says it's, quote, "beyond insanity" for someone to leave a gun in an unlocked car. He urges his customers to buy gun safes or locks for their cars and more.
JIVIDEN: Our biggest objective is to train people. If you've gone on through one of our classes, you're not going to be one of the people that is violating these very basic rules of gun safety.
KASTE: That said, Jividen does not think the state should go back to requiring training for guns kept in cars. He also sees that as an infringement to the Second Amendment. And that is where things stand right now in Tennessee - a widespread desire for more common sense with guns but deep disagreement about whether that common sense should be required by law. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Nashville.
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