North Charleston police officers patrolling July 8 near the Pinecrest apartment complex on McMillian Avenue saw a suspicious man who pulled a handgun from his waistband and threw it to the ground after noticing officers.

That handgun, a .357-caliber Sig Sauer, was later confirmed stolen out of Charleston, police said. The 21-year-old fled to an apartment in the complex where he was later found with evidence of drug sales activity and more guns including a military-style rifle that was confirmed stolen out of Dorchester County.

Three days later, officers stopped a vehicle on Eleanor Drive, police said. There were two people inside the vehicle along with drugs and two guns — one of which, a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson, was confirmed stolen out of North Charleston. 

Law enforcement agencies in the tri-county area say stolen guns like these are ending up in the hands of criminals and are helping to fuel violent crime. Within that problem, they say, is a worrisome trend. Many of these guns are being stolen from unlocked vehicles. 

The Post and Courier requested data from area law enforcement agencies, detailing the number of firearms stolen from vehicles in each of their jurisdictions from 2016 to this year. The data compares the first seven months of each year — Jan. 1 through July 31. 

According to the seven agencies that fulfilled the request, firearm thefts from vehicles have increased each year: 266 in 2016, 301 in 2017, 354 in 2018 and 372 in 2019 for a total of 1,293.

North Charleston stolen guns_2.jpg

Several stolen handguns are spread across a table at North Charleston Police Department headquarters. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"We’re putting guns in a criminal’s hands," said Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds. "That’s exactly what our community is doing every time (a gun) is taken."

'A car is not a gun safe'

Under South Carolina law, a person who does not have a concealed weapons permit can have a loaded handgun in a vehicle if it's secured in a closed glove compartment, console, trunk or in a closed container that's secured with an "integral fastener" and located in the luggage compartment.

Those with concealed weapons permits can keep a secured gun under a seat, in an open or closed storage compartment in the vehicle or concealed on their person. 

Possessing, carrying or having a loaded long gun readily accessible on a public road or railroad right of way is prohibited in South Carolina unless that person has permission to hunt the land immediately adjacent. Such guns can also be carried in a vehicle within a closed compartment or trunk, under state law. 

South Carolina also does not require gun owners to report guns that are lost or stolen. A bill introduced in the state House of Representatives during the last session proposes such a requirement but stalled in the Judiciary Committee.

And laws governing the transport and storage of firearms in vehicles vary. 

"Generally, states allow free travel and storage of an unloaded firearm in a locked container," said David Chipman, senior policy adviser for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and a retired special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "When it comes to loaded firearms while traveling, generally concealed carry laws apply, although some states recognize open carry of long guns. It’s a patchwork of laws. It varies greatly by state and locality."

What is known is that on their own, vehicles can be less than ideal places to store an unattended firearm.

"A car is not a gun safe," Chipman said. "Certainly a glove box is not one either."

Thefts from automobiles are an issue in communities around the country, Reynolds said, adding that overall auto thefts tend to peak during the summer. 

"In almost every case, it’s unlocked vehicles," he said. "We ask ourselves why we have a violence problem. We’re just flooding the streets with guns that are, in many cases, stolen from unlocked vehicles."

At its core, Reynolds and others see the problem as an issue of responsible gun ownership. 

Gun owners need to be vigilant about not forgetting a firearm inside their vehicle, and, if they have to leave a gun inside, making sure it is secured in an appropriate way, such as in specialized lock box, Reynolds and others said.

Responsible ownership

Thomas Clark is the chief instructor for the Palmetto Gun Club. He holds certifications from the National Rifle Association and is a State Law Enforcement Division concealed weapon permit instructor.

For Clark, the importance of safety and responsibility can't be overstated. 

"I’m a strong proponent of the Second Amendment," he said. "It’s a right guaranteed by our Constitution. Along with all rights come responsibilities. The right to own a gun — absolutely. The responsibility to handle, use and store it safely can’t be discarded or disassociated. They go hand in hand."

Clark said he has personally spoken with about 10 people who've had a firearm stolen from their vehicle. His immediate reaction: "What a dumb damn thing to do." 

In each of those cases, the vehicle was unlocked, he said. 

While people can be forgetful, there are steps they can take to not only remember to lock their cars, but to develop the habit of securing their firearm if it's going to stay inside the vehicle, Clark said. What that step is can be different for each gun owner, and should be a sign that's known only to the gun owner so as to not alert others to the presence of a firearm inside the vehicle. 

"If you gotta leave your gun in the car and the vehicle is out of your sight, that’s when you use a lockbox and lock the car," he said. 

Scott Deckard, a deputy chief with the North Charleston Police Department, said many gun thefts can be prevented by taking steps to secure the weapon because thieves are often looking for a quick and easy target. 

"Increasingly, it’s become more of an issue of leaving the guns in the cars and leaving the cars unsecured," Deckard said. "People that are breaking into the cars don’t have time to waste because they don’t know when somebody’s going to pass by. They want to get in, get out without being observed."

And gun owners should keep meticulous records of any firearms they own in case they are lost or stolen, he said. Keeping paper records of the gun's purchase, serial number, and adding a unique identifying mark such as the owner's initials in a location on the gun that isn't known to others and readily apparent are all good steps to take. 

Finding solutions 

For Reynolds, there is no singular fix to the issue. Instead, communities need to employ a variety of tactics including properly securing firearms and educating gun owners. 

"There's no panacea," the chief said. "We regularly are getting the message out. What I find is that people are surprised. Even officers are surprised at the level and the frequency (of thefts) in some communities."

Chipman said he is concerned by an increasing proliferation of guns around the country without an equally strong push for education on responsible ownership.

"I cannot think that storing guns in your vehicle was normal 20 years ago," he said. "When I was first on the job ... if I saw someone carrying a gun absent a badge, I was going to immediately detain them for questioning. Today, that is absolutely different. ... Over a dozen states allow you to carry absent any licensing permit or training."

South Carolina state law allows for the concealed carrying of firearms by people eligible to own guns who pass a course and obtain a license. 

In decades past, one of the top priorities of the NRA was on promoting gun safety and training, Chipman said. Today, most of that organization's efforts center around expanding gun ownership and loosening regulations related to firearms. 

The Post and Courier reached out multiple times to the NRA for comment but did not receive a response. 

Stolen Guns

A member of Palmetto Gun Club shows a method of storing a handgun inside a vehicle, using a lockbox. There are several different ways of securing a firearm inside a vehicle. A lockbox is one of them. Brad Nettles/Staff

"There is a greater responsibility when we exercise our Second Amendment right," Chipman said. "You have a right to buy a gun, but if you’re not responsible, there are consequences. It is the responsibility of gun owners to speak to their peers and say, 'Hey, you’ve got to do the right thing.'"

For S.C. Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, addressing the issues in communities that drive people to steal guns is also a key to solving the issue. 

"It’s no secret that stolen guns are the ones that are used in violent crime," Pendarvis said. "The citizens are very concerned. I’ve heard it time and time again. They recognize where the guns are coming from."

Police and community leaders need to take a hard look at addressing the factors that cause crime, such as lack of resources or fear of violence in a neighborhood, he said. 

Among some young people, getting a gun is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, Pendarvis said. Others feel that they need to get a gun for protection and have no legal means of obtaining a firearm. 

"We’ve got to eradicate the fear in many of our communities (and) get away from the gun as a symbol of popularity or status," he said.

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.