NASHVILLE — On a Sunday in January 2022, a Glock 9mm pistol, serial number AFDN559, disappeared from a Dodge Charger parked near a Midtown Nashville bank after someone smashed in the rear driver’s side window.
Ten months later, Nashville police officers arrested three teenagers suspected in a series of shootings, and discovered a cache of weapons in a nearby apartment. Among them was AFDN559. Forensic analysts would later tie the Glock to three shootings, including an attack in August that wounded four youths and another that wounded a 17-year-old girl in September.
In a country awash with guns, with more firearms than people, the parked car, or in many cases the parked pickup truck, has become a new flashpoint in the debates over how and whether to regulate gun safety.
There is little question about the scope of the problem. A report issued in May by the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety analyzed FBI crime data in 271 American cities, large and small, from 2020 and found that guns stolen from vehicles have become the nation’s largest source of stolen firearms — with an estimated 40,000 guns stolen from cars in those cities alone.
In some cities, organized groups of young people have swept through neighborhoods and areas around sports arenas, looking for weapons left under car seats or in unlocked center consoles or glove compartments. Their work is occasionally made easier by motorists who advertise their right to bear arms with car window stickers promoting favored gun brands, or that declare “molon labe” — a defiant message from ancient Sparta, which roughly translates as “come and take them.”
Increasingly, thieves are doing just that. The Everytown researchers found that a decade ago, less than a quarter of all gun thefts were from cars; in 2020, over half of them were. The researchers say more study is needed to understand the shift, which has occurred as more states have adopted permitless carry laws and messages in gun-industry marketing have encouraged Americans to take their weapons with them for personal protection.
And as the problem has grown, public health officials and lawmakers, including some in Tennessee, have proposed a rather prosaic solution: encouraging or mandating that gun-toting drivers store their weapons in their vehicles inside of sturdy, lockable gun boxes.
Gun control advocates are hoping that the adoption of the boxes in cars will come to be seen as a solution that both sides of the gun debate can accept, much as both sides encourage the use of gun safes and trigger locks in the home.
“I do think that safe storage is where we find a lot of common ground,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy and programs at Brady, the gun-violence prevention organization.
But some experts say widespread adoption of the boxes may require a dramatic cultural change akin to the revolution in seatbelt use. And it may prove to be even more polarizing than seatbelts ever were. The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights advocates believe car lockbox mandates to be an onerous burden — a reflection of how the avalanche of guns is creating new sources of conflict.
Many lockboxes are relatively cheap. Simple versions that can attach to the underside of a car seat with a cable can be found for about $40, and some cities have even begun developing programs to give them away. In Houston, where more than 4,400 guns were stolen from cars last year, the police have given away roughly 700 such boxes this year, according to Houston Police Sgt. Tracy Hicks, and have plans to give away 6,300 more.
Some skeptics doubt even widespread use of the boxes would make much of a dent in gun violence in a nation with more than 400 million firearms in circulation. “It’s like peeing in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans, which had one of the nation’s highest homicide rates in 2022.
In Nashville, the number of guns reported stolen from cars there increased nearly tenfold over the last decade, to a record 1,378 in 2022 from 152 in 2012, according to police data. The city’s rate of gun thefts from cars was the 15th highest in the country in 2020, based on FBI figures. The situation was even worse in Memphis, Tennessee’s second-largest city, which had the highest rate of gun thefts from cars in the nation that year, according to the Everytown analysis.
It is difficult to know how many stolen guns are used in crimes, in part because only 15 states have laws requiring the reporting of lost or stolen guns. “We don’t ask enough where guns used in crime come from,” Mr. Heyne said.
Tennessee’s Republican-dominated state legislature is considering a pair of bills with bipartisan support that would explicitly outlaw leaving a firearm in a motor vehicle or boat unless it is “locked within the trunk, utility or glove box, or a locked container securely affixed.”
The only allowable punishment, under the bill, would be enrollment in a court-approved firearm safety course. It is a purposely mild approach engineered to help create buy-in, rather than another culture-war battle, said Representative Caleb Hemmer, a Nashville-area Democrat who sponsored the House bill.
“We’re likening it to a speeding ticket,” Mr. Hemmer said. “We know we’re in a conservative state, and we’re trying to convince people to be responsible gun owners.”
Mr. Hemmer believes there is a relationship between the spike in the number of guns stolen from cars in Nashville and theloosening of state gun laws, including a 2021 permitless carry law.
Mr. Hemmer’s bill is supported by John C. Drake, the Nashville Police chief, who on Tuesday wrote a letter to legislative leaders in which he mentioned that the high-profile robbery and killing of a local country musician, Kyle Yorlets, in 2019 was carried out by youths using a pistol stolen from a vehicle.
“With gun ownership comes serious responsibility on several fronts, including securing guns, particularly in motor vehicles, so that they do not come into the hands of thieves/violent criminals,” Mr. Drake wrote.
The Tennessee lockbox legislation is already generating controversy, an indication of how steadfastly gun-rights advocates oppose nearly any laws that might restrict gun owners.
The legislation is opposed by the N.R.A. Amy Hunter, an N.R.A. spokeswoman, called Mr. Hemmer’s bill “feckless” in a statement and said it would discourage theft victims from reporting the stolen guns to the police.
“This law can only be enforced if someone’s gun is stolen, the victim then reports the theft and admits the gun was unsecured — at which point the theft victim is charged with a crime,” she said.
In Chapel Hill, Tenn., a small town about 50 miles south of Nashville, David Henley, 51, the owner of the gun store Tennessee Armory and Outdoor Supply, had a similar view.
It would be better, he said, to increase penalties for the thieves. “If you’re at your house and a package is sitting on your porch, and a criminal comes and steals it, it’s the same thing,” he said. “Who’s the criminal?”
Representative John Gillespie, a Memphis Republican who co-sponsored Mr. Hemmer’s bill, was frustrated by such arguments. “I’m more than willing to increase the penalties for people stealing a gun,” he said. “But are we really that burdened by asking someone to properly lock up their gun in a vehicle so it can’t be stolen?”
Laws mandating that guns in cars be locked away are already on the books in some states, including California, Oregon, New York and New Jersey.
A number of similarly themed bills are under consideration in other states including Hawaii and Florida. A Virginia bill, introduced by a Democratic senator in that state’s Republican-controlled upper chamber, did not survive the 2023 legislative session, which ended in late February.
Cities are also taking action. In January, the Atlanta City Council passed an ordinance seeking to create a lockbox giveaway program. In New Orleans, Tulane University’s Violence Prevention Institute has begun giving away gun boxes with biometric thumbprint locks at a local hospital.
“The hard thing is, when you talk to people about why they carry guns in cars, it’s about safety and protection. And when you talk about lockboxes, the rebuttal is, ‘Well, I don’t have quick access to my gun,’” said Julia Fleckman, co-director of the Tulane institute.
In St. Louis, police have recently begun actively enforcing a five-year-old law that mandates that guns be stored in locked containers. Nick Dunne, a spokesman for Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, noted that judges are giving people the opportunity to have their cases dismissed if they show the court that they have purchased a lockbox.
Mr. Dunne said that of 192 citations written last year, roughly three-quarters of them were issued to people who did not live in St. Louis — an indication of how the political and cultural differences between cities and rural and suburban areas help fuel the problem.
Houston Police Sgt. Hicks says that part of his job involves trying to get the word out to people who come in town for big sporting events.
Sgt. Hicks said that it is not just out of town visitors who are targeted by gun thieves, although he said that they know to look for clues that suggest a gun is more likely to be in a car.
“You’ve got a Prius with a unicorn sticker or a big F250 with a Glock sticker,” he said, referring to the popular Ford pickup truck. “Which one is more likely to get broken into?”