One concern we all share as responsible gun owners is keeping our guns out of the wrong hands. That can range from children who aren’t ready to handle the responsibility of gun safety to violent criminals looking to arm themselves. As a robbery detective, this is an issue I’ve dealt with often, and based on that experience, I want to share some ways you can protect against unauthorized access and loss of a firearm.
I was excited for the chance to write this article because it’s a topic that doesn’t get the exposure it deserves given how many guns end up in the hands of criminals due to theft. There is one particular experience I had as a patrol officer that I believe demonstrates just how easily avoidable many of those gun thefts are.
The last beat I worked prior to making detective was a primarily commercial district. There were several gyms near the county line, and just on the other side of the county line was a large apartment complex that housed more than its share of criminals. As a result, I was taking multiple vehicle break-in reports every day at the gyms, sometimes in the double digits.
After talking to so many victims, seeing where the cars were in the parking lot, and gathering information on what was taken and from where, one fact jumped out. From victim interviews and surveillance tape, it became clear the suspects were scouting cars for visible valuables. So, I created a little flier that looked like a parking ticket, and I would walk the parking lot looking in cars. When I noticed valuables visible in the car, I filled out the blanks on the “ticket”. It would then read something like “Ptl. Blue conducted an anti-theft patrol in this parking lot. He noticed the following unsecured valuables in your vehicle _____. Had a thief noticed it, he would have broken your window and, within seconds, stolen your items. Please secure your items in the locker room or hide them from view.”
It amazed me how often purses, laptop bags, and expensive electronics were visible from outside the car. But with the “ticket” reminders, I saw fewer and fewer exposed valuables. Break-ins at the gym plummeted dramatically, so I continued the practice at other locations and solved the problem for my beat until a covert unit could become available and catch the thieves in the act elsewhere. This experience caught my interest, and I spent quite a bit of time learning how to thwart the thieves.
Criminals gain access to firearms in several ways, the two most common being vehicle break-ins and residential burglaries. While guns are sometimes stolen from gun stores (often by driving a car into the building) and by robbing someone known to be carrying a gun, today we’re focusing on how the average armed citizen can avoid the theft of an unattended firearm.
Vehicle break-ins come in two varieties: residential parking (i.e. in your own driveway or at the curb in front of your home) and parking lots. Both types of crimes tend to be clustered in certain areas of any given jurisdiction. If your local police or sheriff’s department has online crime reporting, you can often filter the crimes to see where they cluster in your area.
Vehicle Break-Ins at Your Residence
Residential vehicle break-ins occur more frequently in areas that are high in other types of crimes, particularly narcotics and vice offenses. Non-violent addicts who are looking to feed their habits will often target unoccupied vehicles due to the lower risk of both being confronted by property owners or detected by law enforcement. The neighborhoods that attract these types of criminals lack stores to shoplift from, often making cars the lowest hanging fruit for theft. Only the most desperate will smash a window just to rummage, hoping to find something of value. Most will scout cars for valuables or access them without needing to break a window. They will try door handles looking for an unlocked vehicle to go through and will look in the windows of locked cars to see if there’s anything of value. The “tool” they use to break windows is often a simple spark plug — the electrode acts like a window punch and will break a side window quite easily. They generally do not gain access to the trunk in a modern car that requires the keys to pop it open. The center console and glove box are the prime focus of the rummaging. Valuables under the seats are sometimes missed.
For low-crime residential areas, vehicle break-ins can still occur. The thieves are often younger and live in the area. Residents of the neighborhood generally have a suspicion as to who the likely culprits are. They tend to be the source of other issues in the neighborhood such as vandalism, noise complaints, and petty theft. If you can think of someone that fits this narrative within easy walking distance of your home, then you are at an elevated risk of a vehicle break-in.
In more affluent neighborhoods, it’s generally kids looking for a thrill and hoping for money to buy something parents don’t know about. They usually travel in groups and are sometimes easier to catch since they are known to the neighborhood.
Those who live in rural settings generally have less to worry about. The low density of both people and potential targets means there’s little opportunity for scouting. Unfortunately, a quickly growing number of rural communities have issues with meth, pills, and heroin, so you still need to know your neighbors and be aware of anyone who heightens your risk.
Avoiding Residential Theft from Vehicles
The biggest step you can take in reducing your risk of a vehicle break-in in a residential setting is to not live in an area where they occur. I understand this seems self-evident and that where you live is often not entirely in your control, however, it’s worth mentioning, particularly if you are moving and will be renting. Run the crime stats for the neighborhood before you commit to it. Even for the most temporary lodging, like when I am choosing a hotel in an unfamiliar area, I will look at these sorts of crime stats for the neighborhood as well as reviews on travel websites. For a place you plan to live long-term, drive through the area in both the daytime and at night, watching for any suspicious activity.
Next is securing your vehicle. A garaged vehicle is much safer than one parked in a driveway, which can be marginally safer than one parked on the street, particularly if the driveway is longer, well lit, and the yard is fenced. It’s easier for criminals to scout while walking on a sidewalk and peering into curb-parked cars than going up into people’s yards or down long driveways.
Next is not advertising valuables. Thieves in our jurisdiction have targeted both marked and unmarked police cars since they know it’s very likely there are guns inside. They are often visible in a rack. Anyone with access to YouTube and Google can easily learn how to access a gun rack with a set of wire cutters and a 9v battery. If thieves, whether computer literate or not, can see valuables in your car, they will take note and go after them if the opportunity arises. Don’t leave bags, purses, electronics, cash, or weapons visible in the car. Not on the seats, not on the console, not on the floor. Hide, cover, or place in the trunk if it has to stay in your car.
While some vehicles are more secure than others, I haven’t noticed that any particular models are broken into more often than others with one notable exception. Early model Ford Super Duty Pickups are very easy to break into due to a security flaw in the external door handle, and because of that, they are more often targeted by professional thieves, both for break-ins and for auto theft. If you own a Super Duty, take the time to research the issue online and consider purchasing one of the aftermarket security upgrades to mitigate the problem. Some vehicles have a trunk that’s much easier to punch than others, but the overwhelming majority of break-ins involve the passenger compartment only.
I’d highly recommend not leaving firearms anywhere in a vehicle overnight, especially if it’s not garaged. If you absolutely must leave guns in the vehicle, lock them in a safe that is secured to the vehicle either permanently or via a cable lock with a high-quality padlock. This will deter all but the most dedicated thieves. The thieves we have apprehended are sometimes carrying tools such a spark plug or other makeshift window punch and maybe a knife. They might also have a screwdriver and something to strike it with in order to punch car locks, but not wire cutters, pry bars, or the kind of tools needed to quickly force open a decent pistol safe.
Vehicle Break-Ins in Parking Lots
While I can think of very few reasons to leave a gun in your car when it’s parked at home, I can think of several reasons to leave a gun in a vehicle in a parking lot. My state has a law that employers can’t prohibit a gun in your vehicle, but can prohibit them in the buildings. As a result, many citizens in my state can drive to and from work armed but must leave the firearm unattended in their vehicle while they are working. Additionally, every state has areas that are off limits for legal carry. Some are more restrictive than others. Finally, there are some places and activities that are just not conducive to carrying a firearm. I carry pretty much any time I’m awake, but even I haven’t figured out a good way to carry while swimming.
We should all assume there will be a time we have to leave our gun in the car and plan ahead, taking adequate precautions to keep that gun in the car and not let it fall into the hands of criminals. Layered security is the key. That could include a car alarm, parking in areas with more lighting and traffic (also a good personal security measure), and once again, making sure there is nothing of value visible from outside of the vehicle. I use a small safe and cable lock that goes under my seat. Again, very few thieves carry the tools necessary to cut a cable. Given enough time, it could be pried into or otherwise defeated, but the combination of a car alarm and hidden safe are generally adequate precautions.
I’ve often seen people online saying it’s unwise to display NRA or other gun related stickers on your car as it advertises that there may be a gun inside. I personally have never seen criminals fishing based on these stickers, nor has any officer I’ve talked to about this. While I’m not saying it has never happened anywhere, it has not been a factor in my experience.
Residential Gun Theft
Residential burglaries have similar risk factors and prevention measures as home invasions, which I’ve previously discussed. I recommend you take a look at that article for more detail on a layered security plan and target hardening for your home. For now, I’m focusing solely on additional layers of security for your firearms.
Large Gun Safes
The most obvious answer for keeping your gun secure at home is a gun safe. While a well-made large gun safe is expensive, a pain to move, and can take up a lot of room, it’s also the best protection for your guns from any sort of unwanted access. While I was overseas, my Fort Knox safe protected my guns through two burglaries. Fort Knox even replaced a damaged faceplate for free when I returned.
Random thieves that break in will seldom have the tools required to get into a quality safe. If you’ve layered your security with an alarm or other ways to limit the amount of time a criminal is willing to spend in your house, it’s unlikely they will have time to get into your safe even if they do have the proper tools and knowledge. When larger gun safes are defeated, it’s because the thief was given plenty of time with it. That’s generally accomplished by simply stealing the entire safe and then opening it somewhere else. Cheaper safes and security cabinets are often relatively easy to pry open once they are laid on their backs. Bolting the safe down or framing it in so it’s not easily removed, combined with limiting the thief’s time via an alarm system will increase the effectiveness of any safe.
Small Gun Safes
I’ve also seen small “quick-access” or nightstand type safes defeated in the home. Some of them do not require any tools to open. Simply slamming it repeatedly on the floor causes it to spring open or the locking mechanism to fail. This is an important measure of how easy it is to quickly defeat a small safe by even the most unprepared thief. Any small safe must be secured in some way so it can’t be removed from the home and opened at a later time. Nightstands are often easy to break, again, by simply picking it up and smashing it on the floor. An eye-bolt sunk into a stud or into the floor for a cable or chain lock is significantly harder to defeat for a thief with limited tools.
A subset of gun safes are in-wall units. They can’t be stolen as an entire unit, so the thief would have to pry into it. Their safety can also be enhanced by hiding the unit behind a mirror or painting. Burglars do not routinely remove wall decorations, but they can be targeted if the thief knows what to look for. The more people who know about it, the higher the chances of the information reaching the wrong ears.
Hidden Gun Storage
This moves us to the notion of hiding guns. This is the least secure method, of course, but if you must rely on it, there are areas that burglars do tend to search for hidden valuables more often and more thoroughly. These include:
- Under beds
- Dresser and desk drawers, sometimes pulling the drawers completely out to look behind them
- Kitchen cabinets
- Closets, including clothes hanging in closets
Bedrooms and their attached closets almost always get the most attention when the thief has the time and inclination to search for additional valuables. I’ve seen dresser drawers pulled out and smashed apart as well as entire nightstands broken, presumably checking for false bottoms or hidden compartments.
I have no experience with safes that are built into shelves or otherwise disguised. My opinion is that the wall shelf option would be the best since things on the walls are rarely disturbed. I would be a bit more concerned about an item mimicking furniture that’s small enough to pick up, like a nightstand. Bookshelves or wall shelves are less likely to be smashed than a nightstand.
Keeping Guns Safe From Kids
Finally, I’d like to end this article with a plea to keep guns secure from children not mature enough to understand the responsibilities of gun safety. Hidden is not secured. Kids are more resourceful and more observant than you think. Children who aren’t strong enough to pull the trigger in the traditional way still shoot themselves, often by pointing the gun at themselves, putting both thumbs through the trigger guard and their fingers on the backstrap, and squeezing. I’ve regretfully seen more than one child not yet old enough to attend school shoot themselves in the chest this way.
I investigated an incident where a small child who found a striker-fired pistol under the sofa put a pencil through the trigger guard so she could spin the gun around the pencil. She shot herself in the arm, shattering it. Guns left on nightstands, in shoe boxes in the closet, hidden on a magnet under an end table, and many more “stash guns” have all led to me responding to a child shot with a found handgun. Sometimes the victim is a child that lives in the home and sometimes they’re a visitor.
Please, don’t be the next household to have to go through that. Put your gun in a safe or keep it on your person in a holster. Don’t think it can’t happen to you or your child.
In summary, the best way to lower your risk of losing firearms to a thief is to keep them behind layered security. Vehicles are inherently less secure than homes, but the risk can be mitigated by keeping valuables out of sight, parking in higher traffic well-lit areas, and using a security device that requires tools and time to defeat. When not carried on your person, firearms in the home should ideally be stored in a safe that’s either too heavy to haul away or secured to the floor or wall. An alarm system will help ensure that burglars do not have time to search for and defeat those containers. Taking just a few extra measures can reduce the risk of your firearms falling into the wrong hands.