MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The city’s top cop is telling gun owners to secure their weapons in cars. A surge in the number of guns stolen from vehicles in Memphis is prompting the concern from police director Mike Rallings.
“I’m not anti-gun. I’m anti-stolen gun,” said MPD Director Mike Rallings.
Rallings said in an interview with WMC Action News 5 that he wants to set the record straight. He's a supporter of the second amendment. But he believes the inaction of gun owners in Memphis is putting lives at risk.
"I'm anti-children being placed in jeopardy because of irresponsibility or carelessness," he said.
A 2014 Tennessee law allowed legal gun owners to keep loaded weapons in their cars without a state handgun carry permit. Rallings said in the years since, Memphis streets have been flooded with weapons stolen from cars.
Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich’s office put out a PSA in 2017, hoping to stop the trend, to no avail.
Memphis Police report gun thefts from motor vehicles have soared, from 358 in 2013 to 1,273 in 2018. It is a 256 percent increase.
"These are real numbers. These numbers are impacting citizens every day. We should all want to do something about it," Rallings said.
The WMC Action News 5 investigators pulled statistics from law enforcement agencies across Shelby County. Numbers provided by Shelby County Sheriff's Office, which includes unincorporated areas of Shelby County, Lakeland, and Arlington, show 73 weapons swiped in 2016. The number grew to 146 in 2018.
Numbers from Millington Police and Germantown Police showed a surge in gun thefts from vehicles in 2017.
Bartlett Police said their records system doesn't allow them to sort by types of stolen items. Collierville Police did not respond to our requests.
In Memphis, Rallings said some guns are left on car seats, under the seats, stuck in between seats, and in unlocked glove-boxes. Sometimes, he said, the car is even unlocked.
In one instance a citizen left a gun unattended in a running car. The car was stolen and the gun used hours later in a carjacking.
In another, a man stole a gun out of a car then gave the firearm to his school-aged sister to hide in her backpack. She took it to school, where another student alerted a school resource officer who prevented the worst.
"When you're not in the car – who's the gun protecting," Rallings said.
Rallings said it's not just a Memphis problem. Police in Nashville and Chattanooga have also reported hundreds of guns stolen from vehicles.
Memphis attorney Claiborne Ferguson said gun owners could be sued if their firearm is used in a crime. But he said there's no way they could face criminal charges.
"If you're reckless in the handling of a weapon, you should be held responsible for whatever injuries occur because of that recklessness," he said, "Criminal laws are designed to punish people for criminal activity and just leaving your gun in a car and having it stolen by a criminal is not in and of itself criminal."
Rallings is advocating for new state legislation that would require a firearm be placed in safe place in an unoccupied vehicle.
Chip Holland at Range USA showed the WMC Action News 5 investigators a number of lockable boxes that can be secured to the interior of a vehicle by a tough cable so a gun can't be simply swiped. Larger boxes can also be built in. Holland said it's a message he emphasizes in his carry classes.
"You don't want to leave a gun just laying in your car unsecured," Holland said, "It's a risk to everybody involved. It's a risk to you."
They are simple steps the police director said would make Memphis streets safer.
"It would be rather unfortunate if your gun is stolen from your car and used on you or a loved one in some type of violent crime," Rallings said, "It could cost you your life."
Rallings said he wants to work with the Memphis delegation of state lawmakers, but it’s unclear how much political will there may be to enact any changes. Republicans, who tend to shy away from measures on gun control, have a super-majority in the Tennessee General Assembly.
The WMC Action News 5 investigators reached out Thursday to Republican House and Senate leadership. The Republican Leader of the House, William Lamberth, said he's pushing a bill to require a 30 day jail sentence for anyone who steals a firearm, and the goal is to target the criminals, not gun owners.
“We don’t try to babysit or nanny-state our citizens,” Lamberth said, “We want to go after the criminals that are actually the root of this problem.”