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Thieves in Vancouver scouring parked vehicles for valuable items are increasingly likely to steal something troubling: firearms.
From Jan. 1 through July 22, 28 guns were stolen from cars, according to Vancouver Police Department data obtained through a public records request. That was already a record, although overall firearms thefts have dropped.
The previous record for thefts of firearms from vehicles – 25 – was set last year. This year’s rate is on pace to nearly double it.
The trend left law enforcement officials, neighbors and gun owners bewildered.
“It just seems odd,” Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik said.
Most of the thefts stem from auto prowls, Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said in an email. These crimes of opportunity often involve someone spying a valuable object inside a car, breaking in and stealing it — often within seconds. Credit and debit cards are most commonly stolen, but thieves also take purses, backpacks, laptop computers and wallets. And, increasingly, they steal guns.
“Today’s auto prowlers don’t bother trying to pick a lock or get in without causing damage,” Kapp said. “They smash a window in a second or two and grab the item.”
Police can’t do much to prevent these crimes, but residents can do a lot, Kapp said. The most effective thing is to not leave valuables in vehicles.
“What we do from a police perspective is repeatedly put out messages and reminders and tips regarding not leaving valuables in vehicles and the dangers related to that,” Kapp said. “Despite that, people still do, and guns are one of the items that are also left in vehicles and are stolen along with other property.”
Since gun thefts are up, a natural assumption might be that auto prowls also are on the rise. But statistics show that’s not the case
Vancouver police took an average of 1,116 auto prowl reports per year between 2015 and 2018. The projected number of crimes this year — using the data through July 22 and before the typically eventful holiday season — is 1,007.
“A lot of these types of things can be quite random. Other times there are driving factors of one sort or another that create an increase or decrease,” said Golik, who noted he couldn’t think of any specific factors with this trend.
In the past, firearms were most commonly stolen from homes. Now thieves strike in a shopping center parking lot. Over the last five years, 13 percent of all guns stolen from cars citywide were in the VanMall neighborhood, an area that includes the mall and other shopping centers and apartments.
“You can have your car parked for five minutes and have it broken into,” said Dean Van Nostern, a volunteer with the Vancouver Police Department’s Neighbors on Watch program. “There are hundreds of options” for would-be thieves.
The police department often depends on neighborhood watch volunteers to patrol lots and report any suspicious activity. Volunteers, with labels indicating their purpose slapped on the sides of their personal vehicles, may look for broken windows or large, loitering groups.
“It’s pretty random. Just anything that doesn’t look like common, everyday stuff,” volunteer Andy Chumbley said.
When volunteers notice suspicious activity, they will find a safe spot and either continue monitoring or notify police.
“Sometimes it’s just a feeling,” Van Nostern said. “Just our presence in a parking lot will deter a crime.”
Once in a while, volunteers — who don’t patrol between midnight and 6 a.m. — will come across broken glass by a car, but it’s not as common as other illicit activities they note, such as vehicles with expired license plate tags. Like police, it’s nearly impossible for them to spot the vast majority of break-ins as they occur.
When offered the statistics regarding guns stolen from cars, Van Nostern’s surprise was apparent. He did, however, suggest that auto prowlers can be brazen.
“They don’t care whether it’s daylight or dark out,” Van Nostern said.
While numerous laws exist to penalize those who steal guns, a state law that went into effect in July placed a heavier responsibility on firearms owners. Under Initiative 1639, gun owners can face criminal charges of “community endangerment” if they leave a firearm where they “reasonably should know” that a felon or underage person could gain access to it.
The law is designed to decrease the chances of guns finding their way into criminal hands, but Golik explained that a narrow set of circumstances would need to take place for charges to be filed. After the gun is stolen, it must also be used in a crime, and the ensuing investigation must trace it to its original owner.
“Recovery of stolen firearms is not common, thus not giving us much regarding suspect profiles,” Kapp said.
While Golik said his office will review any community endangerment referrals sent by police, he doesn’t expect many.
“You’d have to have all of the pieces come into play,” Golik said.
Jim Medlock, a gun safety instructor at Concealed Safety in Hazel Dell, doesn’t leave his weapons in cars. He doesn’t know anyone who has been a victim of a vehicle prowl, but he said he has spoken to other gun owners who leave firearms in glove boxes or under car seats.
“It puts you in a lot of risk,” Medlock said.
In general, Medlock advises that gun owners keep their weapons on their person, in a locked safe or — at least — within eyesight at all times.
A theft “is much less likely to happen on your person rather than leaving it some place,” Medlock said.
For those who want to carry guns in their cars, mobile gun safes are available at various retailers. The safes typically cost between $100 and $200, and can be attached to the underside of car seats with security cables.
When asked to speculate about a possible cause behind the startling recent trend, Medlock’s reaction was familiar.
“I couldn’t begin to say,” Medlock said. “I don’t have any idea why that might be happening.”
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