When a boy was wounded in an accidental shooting last August on Virginia Avenue in Winchester, it was with a pistol stolen from an unlocked vehicle earlier that year, according to Winchester police.
In November, the teen-aged boy suspected of stealing the pistol in January allegedly stole three rifles left in an unlocked vehicle overnight. Three weeks later, one of the rifles was accidentally fired in a Frederick County home by a youth, according to a search warrant affidavit.
No one was hurt in the county shooting, and the suspect in the thefts has been charged with possession of a firearm by a juvenile, larceny of a firearm and reckless handling of a firearm. "[The suspect] is known for having firearms and tries to sell firearms by posting them on Instagram," Winchester Police Department Detective Marti L. Ivins wrote in the affidavit.
The shootings are part of a continuing problem locally and nationally involving guns stolen from vehicles:
- In 2019 a boy shot himself in the hand in Winchester with a gun stolen from a car believed to have been unlocked.
- In 2018, a pistol stolen from a car in Frederick County was used in a fatal shooting in Wilton, New York, when a man was shot through a hotel wall. The shooter was convicted of negligent homicide in 2019.
- In 2016, a gun stolen from an unlocked car in Frederick County in 2015 was used in the death of D’Londre Minifield after a police chase in Winchester. The death was ruled a suicide, although Minifield’s family has disputed the circumstances of the case in a federal lawsuit.
Because some gun owners don't report that their guns have been stolen, it's difficult to track gun thefts. However, between 2016 through last year, 53 guns were reported stolen from vehicles in Frederick County and 51 in Winchester, according to the Sheriff's Office and Winchester police. Berryville reported one theft and Clarke County reported three, according to law enforcement in those jurisdictions.
Nationally, an estimated 1.8 million guns, including about 43,000 in Virginia, were stolen between 2012-17, according to an analysis of FBI statistics by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Virginia had the 15th highest number of stolen guns in the nation. Nearly 25% of stolen guns nationally were taken from vehicles, according to an analysis of police statistics by The Trace, an online news organization that investigates gun violence and Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group lobbying for stricter gun laws.
Like the suspect in Winchester, the CAP analysis noted gun thieves frequently try to sell them, and stolen guns are often used in crimes. Crimes involving stolen guns include the murders of five Alabama police officers in 2019. "Stolen guns also create challenges for law enforcement officers working to solve gun-related crimes as these guns become untraceable following the theft and cannot be linked to any potential user of the gun," the report said.
To reduce thefts from cars, Everytown recommends only concealed carry pistol permit holders be allowed to carry guns in vehicles. In Virginia, a permit isn't required to carry a gun in a vehicle if the gun is plainly visible to police on the front console during a traffic stop.
Since taking office in 2016, Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland has been trying to discourage people from leaving guns in vehicles. He said in an email that he supports passage of a safe-storage-of-guns-in-vehicles law in Virginia to reduce thefts. However, Millholland said a law shouldn't be necessary because it's a commonsense issue.
"We support the Second Amendment and know that people love their guns," he said. "We want them to keep loving their guns and not leave them in a vehicle or an area where people can steal it and accidentally shoot or kill someone. Or sell it for quick money and have that weapon used to cause fear, injury or to kill."