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

The call came in at 3:40 a.m. and, for North Charleston police, it was a common one.

Somebody had broken into a car outside the Palmetto Grove apartments, north of Northwoods Mall, on a rainy morning back in January.

The officers dispatched to take the report were talking to a witness when they saw a guy in a gray hoodie who matched the suspect’s description. He took off running down Crossroads Drive, and the cops followed.

The officers called to him, but he wouldn’t stop. They tried to tase him, but it didn’t connect. Then they saw the gun in his hand.

It ended exactly as you might expect.

Junnie Williams, 35, was shot and killed that morning while carrying a handgun that, three months earlier, had been stolen out of another North Charleston car.

And that — a gun stolen from a car — is also a very common story around here.

A new report from the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety says FBI data shows that more than half of all the guns stolen in this country these days are taken from cars — and North Charleston ranks 4th in the nation for car-gun thefts per capita.

According to the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, there were 184 guns stolen from cars in North Charleston in 2020. In that same period, 161 guns were taken from cars in Charleston, and another 56 from Mount Pleasant vehicles.

So just in Charleston County’s three largest municipalities, there were 401 guns stolen from cars in a single year. That's more than one a day.

Columbia, by the way, leads the state — and is 3rd in the nation — with 230 guns stolen out of cars in 2020. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department recently said the majority of guns used in violent Midlands crimes are stolen from unlocked cars.

Those statistics suggest a stunning level of carelessness. And there are lethal consequences to that.

Nobody has sounded the warning about this growing crisis more than Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds. The chief has been preaching gun safety and responsible gun ownership for years, probably because it’s mind-numbing how common this problem is.

“It seems like common sense, but it’s not for a lot of people,” Reynolds says. “I’m all for the Second Amendment and gun ownership, but you have to be a responsible gun owner. By the very definition, this is putting guns into the hands of bad guys.”

Exactly. Irresponsible people are arming people who are at the very least thieves, and there’s no nice way to say that.

This is having a disproportionate effect on the crime rate, too, because nothing good comes from stolen guns. Reynolds says people often ask him how teenagers get the guns they use to commit robberies or violent crimes — and this is it.

He says gangs send out young people to check door handles, which is the path of least resistance. And more often than you’d think, they find unlocked cars … and guns inside.

“They are arming up for free, and they’re getting nice ones — long guns, hand guns,” Reynolds says. “And they’re going to use them.”

Everytown for Gun Safety says car-gun thefts have doubled in the past decade. In 2011, about a quarter of the firearms stolen in his country came out of cars and trucks. Now it’s 52%.

The report blames a record number of gun sales in the past decade for putting more on the street, the result of a brilliant marketing scheme that warned the government was coming to take everyone’s guns.

Turns out, it was actually just criminals.

Police will tell you that a lot of folks who have guns stolen from their cars claim they’d actually forgotten they had a firearm in their vehicle. And there are countless stories where such lapses lead to violence.

One example: On Christmas Eve 2015, a woman visiting relatives in downtown Charleston left her car parked in front of the house, unlocked, with her purse — and her gun — inside. Within hours, the weapon was gone.

She called police and reported it. But before it was found, somebody had used the gun to kill a man.

“It’s incensing, because this is predictable and preventable,” Reynolds says.

Charleston police have cautioned folks about this for several years now. North Charleston police run a similar education program, called “Lock it or Lose it,” to urge residents to keep their firearms secure.

But it's not working. And South Carolina doesn't require gun owners to report stolen firearms, so this problem is probably even worse than the numbers suggest.

And it is getting people killed.

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