After having a couple of scary run-ins with angry drivers around Chattanooga, Jamey McCurdy decided to buy a gun.
When driving, he usually kept it in his glove box, taking it inside when he came home at the end of the day.
But one day in 2021, he forgot to bring it in. The next morning, he went outside after remembering he'd left it in his truck.
"The truck wasn't locked, and sure enough they stole the weapon," he said in a phone interview.
Chattanooga has the second-highest rate of guns stolen from cars in the country, according to a recent study from New York-based nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. In 2020, 193.1 guns were stolen for every 100,000 people, the study found. No other U.S. city aside from Memphis saw more guns stolen from cars relative to its population, according to Everytown.
According to the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office, 386 guns were reported stolen from cars across the county in 2022.
Stolen guns are often later used in crimes, District Attorney Coty Wamp said in an interview, and reporting a stolen gun makes sure the evidence won't be wrongfully linked to the person who originally bought it.
In the past decade, cars have surpassed homes as the most common source of stolen guns in the nation, Everytown researcher Sarah Burd-Sharps said by phone. Most of those, at least in Hamilton County, are taken from unlocked cars, Wamp said.
McCurdy said he called police to report his gun being stolen as soon as it happened, afraid that if he didn't, he could be implicated in a crime he had nothing to do with.
"I'm expecting any day to hear that my weapon was used in a murder," McCurdy said.
There are likely a few reasons so many Chattanoogans are finding their firearms taken out of their cars, researchers say.
For one, the rate of gun ownership is generally high in the area and across the state. A Rand Corp. survey found in 2020 that around 51% of Tennesseans own guns, the 14th highest rate in the U.S.
Hamilton County residents who've never had cars broken into or anything stolen from them may also feel a sense of security that stops them from locking their cars, McCurdy said.
"They're a little bit too careless about things like that," he said. "Nobody wants to get a gun stolen, but when your car's never been messed with, you get a little bit complacent."
And people who've bought their first guns in the past few years may be less prepared to keep them secure, Wamp said. After Tennessee lawmakers approved permitless carry in 2021, people buying guns are no longer required to take classes to be trained on gun safety.
"It's like if you started letting people drive without a driver's license," Wamp said.
The state also has no law requiring guns to be stored safely in cars or homes — laws that are in place in 24 states, according to Everytown.
A bill proposing requirements for gun owners to store guns out of sight and in locked containers when left in cars or other vehicles did not pass in the state legislature this year.
Those found guilty of the misdemeanor offense would be ordered to complete a court-approved firearm safety course and wouldn't be subjected to jail time or fines, as the bill was written.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly joined three other Tennessee mayors in supporting Senate Bill 1029. In a March letter to lawmakers, the mayors said that mandating safe storage and requiring gun owners to report stolen guns could "reduce underground gun sales and illegal gun trafficking."
Sponsor Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, later modified his bill to include a "red flag" provision that would allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate guns from people found by a judge to be dangerous to themselves or others.
The bill failed Thursday, after Yarbro's last-minute attempt to bring it back with the red flag provision.
"This type of bill has popped up several times over the years," John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said by phone. "And it typically almost always comes from Democrat proponents. Over the last 13 years, you know, they don't have enough political capital to pass it."
Yarbro's original bill would have also required gun owners to make a report within 24 hours of finding their gun was stolen.
But some gun owners said they may not want to report a gun as stolen if it meant they could be convicted of a misdemeanor, even without the threat of jail time or fines.
Harris said the Tennessee Firearm Association has consistently opposed these bills since they believe the law would make theft victims into criminals.
Wamp, the district attorney, said that while storing guns in cars without securing them is irresponsible, it shouldn't be criminal.
"In criminal justice, we don't ever want to make a victim a defendant," Wamp said. "We're not going to go so far as to say it's your fault that you left your gun. No – it's the criminal's fault. They broke into your car and stole something out of it."
The Everytown study came after researchers kept seeing news coverage talking about an increase in guns stolen from cars specifically in Tennessee, Burd-Sharps, the Everytown researcher, said.
After digging into the numbers nationwide, Burd-Sharps said researchers noticed that instances of car gun theft soared in the past decade. As overall theft from cars went down 15% in that time, gun thefts from cars went up 225%. According to the study, one gun is stolen from a car roughly every 15 minutes in the U.S.
"That's likely a tremendous undercount," Burd-Sharps said, "because only 15 states are requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen guns."
In 2011, 56 guns were reported stolen from cars in Chattanooga, according to federal data used by Everytown. In 2021, that had risen to 381 — more than six times as many.
"And it's going up every year," Burd-Sharps said.
As of March this year, Chattanooga police have received 61 reports of stolen guns from vehicles, according to department data. Police say thefts and other crimes tend to increase during the summer months. In the past two years, gun thefts from cars peaked between May and August, according to police data.
In January, six Chattanooga teenagers were arrested in connection with two separate carjacking incidents that involved stolen guns, Wamp indicated at a news conference at that time.
It's hard to say how many guns are being stolen by minors versus adults, Wamp said, but stolen guns often show up in violent crimes committed by people under 18.
"These days, we don't see smash and grabs anymore like we used to," Wamp said. "They just go through parking lots and driveways to see whose car's unlocked."
She said her office plans to prosecute those crimes harshly, pushing for repeat offenders under 18 to have violent crime cases transferred to adult court to make an example to other minors in Chattanooga.
"I think most of the county understands 16- and 17-year-olds that have continued to commit juvenile offenses, and then finally do something big enough where we can say, alright, you're going to adult court, I think it's accepted," she said. "We get more encouragement over it than we do discouragement."
It's important that children learn about gun safety if they're going to be around guns from a young age, Chattanooga resident and gun owner Christopher Cooper said by phone.
"A lot of people try to blanket their kids, and hide them from that," Cooper said. "I don't think that's the right way to do it. A lot of the kids that get hurt by guns are due to them not knowing what the trigger does or how to tell if it's loaded."
Wamp and other gun owners said that safety training for people buying guns, no longer required because of the state's permitless carry law, would likely reduce the number of guns stolen from cars in the Chattanooga area.
"You should have a certified trainer train everyone that purchases a firearm," Cooper said.
Harris, with the Tennessee Firearms Association, said positive incentives may work better to promote secure gun storage than punishing gun owners. He suggested discounts, like a sales tax holiday, for people who buy safes or locks along with guns.
"It's the carrot versus the whip," he said by phone. "Why would we want to criminalize everything?"
Hamilton County residents may soon see billboards displaying information on gun theft, including statistics and reminders that possessing a stolen weapon is a felony in Tennessee. Wamp said her office is commissioning the billboards in hopes of discouraging people from stealing guns and urging gun owners to store their guns safely.