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Associated Press File Photo / Semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Washington.

Gun rights activists bristle when they hear the words "gun control" and shake their heads when another politico talks about the need for "common-sense gun regulations" for the millionth time after another senseless shooting.

The gun folks would tell you with conviction that lawful gun owners rarely commit gun crimes, and they'd be right. But they might not know how to quantify it.

Well, try this.

According to a 2019 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, "Source and Use of Firearms Involved in Crimes: Survey of Prison Inmates 2016," less than 2% of prisoners surveyed obtained their firearms from a retail source.

But those survey respondents who are locked up got their guns somewhere, and that's where legal gun owners — the great majority of whom never think about committing a violent crime — have a problem. Many of them have their guns stolen from their cars, which they left unlocked.

Behind the Badge, an online site tracking trends in public safety, noted in 2019 that about 2 million guns had been stolen across the country over the previous decade. Estimates of the number stolen every year ranged from 237,000 to 380,000.

How many were stolen from unlocked cars? A lot more than you might think.

In 2020, according to the Chattanooga Police Department, 222 firearms were stolen from unlocked vehicles. That's more than four per week. And that number might be 358, police said, because the other 136 firearm thefts were reported as unknown as to how entry into the car was made.

"Time and time again," Chief David Roddy said in a January news release, "CPD officers are linking evidence which shows a stolen firearm is used in a violent crime in our community. We need less people contributing to violent crime and more people being responsible with securing or removing guns from their unattended vehicles."

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear many Chattanoogans are heeding such simple advice.

In the first quarter of 2021, Jan. 1-March 31, 53 of the 94 firearms stolen from vehicles in the city were taken from a vehicle that was unlocked. An additional 33 firearms were stolen when it was reported as unknown how entry into the car was made.

If that trend continues, it would result in 212 gun thefts for the year and 344 if the unknown entries are included.

The first reply to the CPD Facebook page displaying the first quarter statistics asked, "Who the h—- leaves a gun in their car?"

Apparently, way too many people, which is exactly where so many thugs get their guns to threaten, rob and kill.

We think maybe Lebron Wolfe, who also posted on the CPD Facebook site, may be on to something. He asked, "Why aren't these gun owners' gun rights being removed for not being responsible?

"Yes, I am a gun owner," he said, "but I am not going to leave my gun in my car. If I do and it's stolen, I should be prosecuted or my gun rights removed, period."

We don't imagine that would go over big in Tennessee's General Assembly, which just passed the law that citizens of the state no longer need a permit to carry their gun where it is legal. But a misdemeanor charge and a hefty fine for the owner if a gun is stolen from an unlocked car, and a larger charge and fine if a crime is committed with a gun stolen from an unlocked car might go a long way to averting such preventable thefts.

The irresponsible gun owners don't just live in Chattanooga, though. Last October, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department announced that 13 firearms had been stolen from vehicles in unincorporated areas of the county since Aug. 1. And wait for it. All the vehicles involved were believed to be unlocked.

"A lot of these crimes that occur," Hamilton County Detective Brevin Cameron said at the time, "it's not vehicles that are getting windows smashed, it's criminals that are coming up and trying to find that low-hanging fruit, that unlocked car that he can be in and out of in 30 seconds."

As the number of guns purchased nationwide has skyrocketed during the last decade, the number of guns stolen has risen, and with it the number stolen from cars in general and unlocked cars specifically.

In Tennessee, according to NPR, the number reported stolen from vehicles nearly doubled from 2,203 in 2016 to 4,064 in 2017.

If gun rights activists want to be taken seriously in saying that gun control advocates are knocking on the wrong doors when they want to put more regulations on gun owners, they must get serious about securing their guns in general but specifically — for goodness sake — in not leaving their car doors unlocked where thugs can take them as easily as picking a blade of grass out of the yard.

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