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Nashville sees increase in gun theft from cars

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

More than 1,300 guns were stolen out of cars in Nashville last year. While it's not a new problem, it is getting worse. The increase in gun thefts coincides with a steep rise in gun ownership across the U.S. and looser gun laws that take the emphasis off of safety. Paige Pfleger of member station WPLN reports.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Maricela Morales lives in a small apartment in South Nashville. Decorations on her white walls are sparse, which makes the photo hanging in the middle of her living room seem even more prominent.

MARICELA MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

PFLEGER: She describes the teenage boy in the photo wearing a red polo shirt with black, spiky hair. She pauses in front of the image, holding her hand up to it.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

PFLEGER: She starts to cry, saying, my son. Her 16-year-old Joseluis was killed one winter night in 2018. He was shot by another teenager with a gun that was stolen out of an unlocked car.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

PFLEGER: To avoid what happened to Joseluis, she says, people need to secure their guns. Yet across the city of Nashville, people don't, and firearms are getting stolen from cars at alarming rates. Law enforcement warned this could happen when a 2013 law passed that let gun owners carry in cars. Then last year, Tennessee became one of a handful of states to pass a permitless carry law. That's intensified the situation, says Nashville Police Sergeant Michael Fisher.

MICHAEL FISHER: When the law says you don't have to have a permit to carry a firearm, then there's probably going to be more people out there carrying firearms.

PFLEGER: And the law took the emphasis off gun safety training, like how to lock up a firearm in a car. To crack down on the problem, some have floated an idea, citing the owners of these stolen firearms. But Fisher doesn't think that would work.

FISHER: Are you going to pick up the phone and call the police and go, hey, I committed a crime? Would you guys come over here and cite me?

PFLEGER: Instead, young people bear the brunt of those consequences, says juvenile court judge Sheila Calloway. These cases come through her courtroom every month.

SHEILA CALLOWAY: It's heartbreaking when I see youth that come through our system that literally, if we as a community had simply locked our car doors and locked our guns in safe places, that these cases would not be down here.

PFLEGER: Some gun rights advocates argue fewer guns would be stolen if they had unrestricted carry. But Calloway says gun owners have to take responsibility for keeping their guns safe instead of leaving them in plain sight.

CALLOWAY: That's when my youth, who are not on their top of their game in their thinking process and literally in the midst of their risk-taking process, are taking risks.

JAZMINE WHEELER: The first time I found a gun in the car is actually the first night I've ever car hopped. You know, it's that easy.

PFLEGER: That's Jazmine Wheeler. She's 20 now, but she started trying the handles of unlocked cars, or car hopping, when she was only 14. Her mom was struggling with addiction, and she was looking for a way to support her siblings. Guns were so easy to find that they became a steady source of income. She sold them to other kids or to adults.

WHEELER: A common gun I sold a lot of would be the Smith and Wesson 40. And for that, depending of what age group I sell it to would be, like, $300 to $500.

PFLEGER: But that came to a halt in 2018, when Jasmine was car hopping with other teenagers from her school. She found a loaded gun. It was in an unlocked car parked at an apartment complex.

WHEELER: I was playing with one. A friend of mine was playing with one. And I just remember it going off.

PFLEGER: She shot one of the other teens in the head. It was Maricela Morales' son, Joseluis. She was charged with criminal homicide and handgun possession but pleaded to a lesser charge. She spent three years in juvenile detention.

WHEELER: What happened definitely, like, saved my life, and I don't plan on messing with guns or going back in the streets.

PFLEGER: She's taken steps to turn her life around, and she's interested in using her experience to help other kids. There's still a lot to do. Already in the first two months of this year, about 300 guns have been reported stolen from cars. Nashville's police department launched a gun take-back program, urging parents to ask their kids if they have guns they shouldn't have. They can turn them in no questions asked. It's not a solution to the root cause, but they hope it might get a few of these guns off the streets. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.