Efforts encouraging residents to store firearms securely have had disappointing results, as Mobile has continued to see hundreds of guns stolen from vehicles, including many that were unlocked and unattended.
The Mobile Police Department (MPD) first warned the public about a rash of burglaries targeting handguns kept in vehicles more than a year ago. At the time, Chief Lawrence Battiste described many of the most prolific culprits as teenagers “pulling on door handles” at night.
According to MPD, 1,158 guns were stolen from vehicles in Mobile in 2017, most of which were never recovered. Since then, police say those have only increased.
There were 1,195 guns reported stolen throughout the city in 2018, and as of the end of January, only 97 of those had been recovered by law enforcement. It’s unclear how many of those came from unlocked cars, but an MPD spokesperson told Lagniappe “about 80 percent of all guns taken during vehicle burglaries are taken from unlocked vehicles.”
In addition to that, Battiste said MPD has also noticed a trend of gun owners not documenting the serial numbers of their weapons. He said some people are used to looking on the weapon to remember the number, but that does little good when a firearm is stolen.
“The data says we recovered less than 100, but I know we’ve received far more,” Battiste said. “But because there was not a serial number attached when the person initially reported the burglary of a residence or vehicle, there’s no way to match a gun to a particular owner.”
Data collected by MPD indicates that, of 1,195 guns reported stolen last year, 652 of the victims — more than half — didn’t know the serial number of their weapon. Battiste said that does more than hurt MPD’s recovery stats.
In most cases, he said, it means those owners will likely never see their firearm again, but it can also affect what charges can be brought against a suspect when police recover a gun believed to be stolen.
“When we don’t have a serial number, in many cases we’re only able to charge the offender with a misdemeanor — something like no pistol permit,” Battiste added. “If we can identify that it’s a stolen weapon and where it was stolen from, we can charge things like receiving stolen property, theft or burglary and maybe take some of these guys off the street for a longer period of time.”
Discussions about properly securing weapons were recently reignited after it was revealed that the gun used to shoot and kill MPD Officer Sean Tuder on Jan. 20 had been stolen from a unlocked vehicle just days before.
Since then, the conversation has once again turned to how local and state leaders might help curb the pattern, but there are differing opinions about whether the government should get involved in legislating personal responsibility. There also are impediments in the state law.
During a Mobile City Council meeting last week, Mayor Sandy Stimpson emphasized that “we have a right to carry pistols and to have them in our cars,” but he once again implored Mobilians that do choose carry a handgun in their vehicle to “lock it up.”
“I think this is one of the things we can all do to support our policemen and women,” Stimpson said. “When a gun gets stolen, you can rest assured it’s going to end up somewhere, and more likely than not it’s going to end up at a crime scene.”
Councilors have also discussed the possibility of penalizing gun owners who leave weapons in unsecured locations if those weapons are stolen and used in a crime. However, the city doesn’t have the authority to do much in that area on its own.
“As bad as we would like to pass a law controlling guns, only the state [Legislature] can pass a law pertaining to guns and ammunition. There is absolutely nothing we can do,” Councilman Fred Richardson said. “It’s a lot of things we want to do. It’s a lot of things we believe we could do to curb violence, as it relates to guns, but our hands are tied.”
Not all of his colleagues shared Richardson’s zeal for passing “a law controlling guns,” but while there wasn’t a clear consensus on a solution, the councilors seemed to agree that the prevalence of unsecured weapons is a problem that should be examined going forward.
Councilman John Williams said he wouldn’t support anything limiting gun rights or telling residents how to transport or control weapons. Instead, he said, the focus should be on “being a responsible gun owner” and what to do once a person is “found not to be responsible.”
“It’s a very serious responsibility to have a secured weapon, if you choose to carry, but if you lose it, there should be immediate actions required,” Williams said. “If those actions aren’t taken, there ought to be consequences, and if your weapon is used to commit a crime there ought to be some kind of a shared action.”
Councilman C.J. Small, who has previously spoken in favor of a state law that would require gun owners to secure their weapons or face a penalty, said he believes there should be a “heavy” fine for individuals who leave their guns in unsecured locations such as unlocked cars.
Small urged the council to consider a resolution asking the Mobile County delegation to take up the issue in Alabama’s upcoming legislative session, but no such resolution has actually been approved.
Any legislation restricting the rights of gun owners could also prove to be a tough sell in what Richardson described as “a gun-carrying state.”
What’s more, even some of those who are most concerned about Mobile’s problem with stolen guns aren’t convinced that fining the victims of theft is the best option to fix it. Battiste said he still believes asking residents to take responsibility on their own is the best path forward.
“A lot of people have been helpful in this process and complied with what we’ve asked them to do,” he said. “Some have said we should charge people who leave their cars unlocked with guns inside, but all that’s going to do is make people stop reporting that they’ve had a weapon stolen. Then we have a false sense of security about the number guns that are on the street.”