Despite ongoing efforts by local law enforcement agencies to remind people to lock their vehicles and secure their valuables as they retire for the evening, there have been more than 40 guns stolen from vehicles so far this year.
Including two handguns reported stolen on Monday morning and a pistol and AR-15 rifle reported on Wednesday morning, 43 guns have been reported as stolen from vehicles to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office this year
Of those, only three have been stolen from locked vehicles, according to information provided to The Record by the Sheriff’s Office on Thursday.
That puts the county on track to outpace last year when 58 guns were reported stolen (55 from unlocked vehicles) as well as 2015 when 43 were stolen (39 from from unlocked vehicles).
While the stolen guns represent a small percentage of overall car burglaries — with 818 reported in 2016 and 683 reported in 2015 — it is an easily avoidable problem with potential consequences that many people don’t even consider, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan has said in repeated interviews with The Record.
In general, Mulligan has said, most car burglaries — just as the stolen gun statistics suggest — are the result of someone taking advantage of an unlocked car. In many cases the burglaries are carried out by a group, either of teenagers or young adults, who target an area checking for unlocked cars to go through.
“The trend is somewhat younger,” he said. “But not always a juvenile.”
Often they “hit” a number of cars in one area, which is why the total burglary numbers appear so high. But it doesn’t always mean they steal anything. Authorities and perpetrators alike often refer to it as “car hopping.”
An example of how a situation can escalate quickly when a gun gets found in a car is the August 2015 shooting death of Carl Starke, a 36-year-old autistic man who lived with his mother in Vista Cove condominiums off Masters Drive.
Courtroom testimony during the sentencing of Christopher Koran O’Neal, one of two teens accused in Starke’s death, suggested that the gun that killed him was one that was found in a stolen vehicle.
Starke was found dead in the parking lot of Vista Cove. Authorities believe the death was the result of an attempted carjacking. At least one detective who testified at O’Neal’s sentencing said a group of teens that night had been car hopping and traveling around with a gun found in a stolen car when they happened upon Starke in the parking lot of Walmart on U.S. 1, identified him as a potentially easy target, and followed him home.
But gun owners who leave their firearms inside their car — locked or unlocked — are possibly putting themselves at risk, too.
A significant number of car burglaries happen at night, in residential neighborhoods, with the car parked in a driveway or near the home, according to Mulligan. And many of those cars, he pointed out, have a garage door opener which provides access to a garage that often doesn’t have another locked door between it and the residence.
“When they push that button the garage door opens and they have access to everything in your garage if that’s what they are looking for,” Mulligan said. “Or they can, many times, simply walk in your house while you are home asleep. And if they’ve accessed a firearm, they are inside your house.”
For that reason and others, the Sheriff’s Office has continued to try to raise awareness about the potential dangers of leaving cars unlocked.
Currently they are posting regular reminders to their Facebook page as well tweets at 9 p.m. with the #9PMroutine tag, reminding people to lock the doors to their cars and homes.
The St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach police departments are pushing similar messages through their social media accounts as well.