Tennessee has an epidemic of stolen guns. Why so few are arrested.

Gun Rights

Of 5,386 reported cases of guns stolen from cars statewide last year, less than 4% resulted in an arrest.

Known to law enforcement as a prolific car burglar, Aliecia McKnight has racked up more than three dozen criminal charges since she turned 18 last December. 

The teen, who has appeared on Nashville’s “Top 10 Most Wanted” list, was already wanted on outstanding warrants in Davidson County for auto burglary and gun theft when she was arrested last month while allegedly trying to break into more cars in a hotel parking lot. 

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Officers recovered a window breaker and multiple guns stolen from vehicles. 

McKnight may be prolific, but as far as arrest for car break-ins and stolen guns, she’s somewhat of a rarity.

Tennessee faces an epidemic of stolen guns from cars, but the statistics show the perpetrators are rarely caught and arrested.

Of 5,386 reported cases of guns stolen from cars statewide last year, less than 4% resulted in an arrest, according to numbers from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

In fact, gun theft from a vehicle has among the lowest clearance rates for all theft-type crimes.

For example, the categories of “theft from a building” and “theft from a coin machine” both had about a 15% clearance rate last year. Shoplifting fared better at 60%, while pickpocketing had a 4.2% clearance rate.

Basically, if your gun is stolen from your car, the odds that the person is caught are slim to none.

Law enforcement says the low clearance rates reflect the challenges in crimes of opportunity, which can happen fast with little evidence and no witnesses.

“These guys hit multiple cars at once and unless you can catch them in the act there’s very, very low clearance for it,” said Metro Nashville Police Lt. Joe Winter, from the Specialized Investigations Division. 

And of those who are arrested, even fewer are prosecuted.

A Tennessean report last month found that the vast majority of gun theft charges from 2022 through 2023 in Davidson County were eventually dropped or dismissed, mostly due to lack of evidence.

Attorneys said a new law that stiffened the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony has actually made cases harder to prosecute.

As the numbers of stolen guns continue to skyrocket, some lawmakers have attempted to pass bills that would penalize irresponsible gun owners for leaving unsecured guns in cars, but Republicans have been adverse to penalize people.

A special legislative session in August on public safety specifically prohibited new laws with penalties for gun owners who fail to securely store a firearm.

For now, law enforcement said their main tool is community awareness. 

Major crime, few arrests

In the past decade, Tennessee saw a nearly tenfold spike in the number of stolen guns from cars after the state passed a 2013 law that allowed people to keep guns in their vehicles if they’re locked and secured.

Nashville last year hit a record of 1,378 stolen guns from cars. So far this year, 869 guns have been stolen as of Sept. 12, with 24 taken just in the past week, police said. 

As the numbers rise, statistics show that police are struggling to make arrests statewide and in the four largest counties. 

In Davidson County, just 3% of 1,259 reported cases were cleared by arrest or exception last year, according to the Metro Nashville Police Department. 

In Shelby County, which has among the state’s highest crime rates, less than 2% of 2,420 reported cases were cleared, while Hamilton County cleared less than 3% of its 348 cases. Knox County cleared 9% of 259 cases, according to statistics from Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Law enforcement officials say police recover stolen guns at a much higher rate than the clearance numbers suggest. But connecting a gun to the actual car burglary is tough, as a stolen gun can change hands multiple times before it’s recovered. 

“Even when stolen firearms are recovered, it can be difficult to prove that the person in possession of that firearm was responsible for the car burglary itself,” Knoxville Police Department spokesperson Scott Erland wrote in an email.

In another issue, Erland said gun owners often don’t know the serial numbers for their guns, or they give the wrong numbers, which can make the investigation even more challenging. 

Guns in cars are an easy target 

As part of Metro Nashville’s Specialized Investigations Division, Winter said he’s searched across the country for examples of other jurisdictions that are having better success at their gun theft clearance rates.

But the problem is everywhere.

“No one out there has been able to figure it out,” he said. 

Part of the problem, Winter said, is that the crime is easy and the criminals are smart. 

Criminals will target vehicles with out of county or out of state plates, as well as those with specific bumper stickers for organizations like the National Rifle Association. On his way into work the other day, Winter saw a license plate on a sedan that simply read: GLOCK.

“You could be sure that there’s probably a gun in that car,” he said. 

They also target specific places, like high school sports games. Winter said a rash of cars was hit recently during a basketball game at a Nashville high school.

And the guns sometimes make it into the hands of people willing to pull the trigger. Winter said he’s estimated that about 30% of guns used in different crimes are stolen. 

As far as solutions, Winter said surveillance cameras and license plate reader technology is getting better, but it can be tough to track down the criminals in the images. 

He said community awareness is key, reminding people to lock their car doors, and don’t leave guns and other valuables inside their cars. 

“It doesn’t help our clearance rates, but it does help the amount of thefts,” he said. “The public has to do its part.”

Winter said police also work to prioritize warrants and toughen penalties for people like McKnight, who have a lengthy record of car burglaries. 

As of last week, McKnight remained in custody at the Davidson County Correctional Development Center while her case was pending before a grand jury. 

Limited laws in place for preventing thefts

On the lawmaking side, Rep. Caleb Hemmer, D-Nashville, said he was shocked to see the dismally low clearance rates for gun thefts.

Hemmer is one of several lawmakers pushing for stiffer penalties for those who fail to safely store their firearms, but their efforts stalled in a special legislative session last month when Gov. Bill Lee barred any laws that would have penalties for gun owners. 

Lawmakers only ended up passing a bill that would distribute free gun locks to residents, which was already being done by some agencies, as well as tax incentives for safe gun storage.

Hemmer said he’s hoping to try again in General Assembly’s next regular session in January. His efforts have had backing from the state’s major law enforcement leaders, including Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake.

“The data from (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) proves how hard these vehicle gun theft crimes are to catch and it’s past time we pass meaningful laws on secure storage,” he said. “Tennesseans need to accept personal responsibility and start securing their firearms so they don’t wind up in the hands of criminals.”

Reach Kelly Puente at kpuente@tennessean.com.

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