He was only going to be in the store for a few minutes. 

That’s what the Houston Police Department officer expected when he pulled into the parking lot of a CVS Pharmacy in Humble one Monday afternoon in May. Though he was carrying weapons – an AR-15 and a shotgun – he decided to leave them behind. Surely, in a locked car in broad daylight, they would be safe. 

But when the officer returned to his unmarked vehicle after just minutes in the store, he found his rear driver’s side window shattered and $9,000 worth of goods gone – including the guns. 

File folders inside a case box inside of Caroline Dozier’s office
File folders inside Caroline Dozier’s office, a division chief in the Harris County DA’s Felony Trial Division, on Friday, May 26, 2023, in Houston. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

The officer’s experience in Humble was not an isolated incident. Gun thefts from cars are increasing in the Houston area. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of guns reported stolen from parked vehicles citywide surged from 3,695 to 4,401 – a 19 percent increase – and month-over-month comparisons between 2022 and 2023 suggest the trend is only accelerating. Nearly 1,500 guns were stolen from cars in Houston this year between January and April. In 2022, 1,313 were stolen in that time frame.

“We’ve had 50, 60, 70 cars in a night broken into with nothing reported stolen,” said Tracy Hicks, a sergeant with HPD’s Auto Crimes Task Force. For Hicks, the reason is obvious – the thief “was looking for guns.”

That’s alarming, said Hicks, because of what happens to those guns after they’re stolen – they are sold to people who cannot acquire guns legally. 

“There would be no guns stolen out of cars if there wasn’t a market for them,” Hicks said. 

READ MORE: How to protect your firearms against thieves

That market – the destination for most guns lifted from parked vehicles, among them pistols, assault rifles and shotguns – is on the streets of Houston, said Fred Milanowski, special agent in charge of the Houston Field Division for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

A 2016 study of guns recovered by police in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania found that most gun homicides and assaults are committed with illegal guns. Meanwhile, a separate study published last month in the academic journal Homicide Studies discovered that rates of those crimes tend to rise along with the availability of illegal firearms.

Neighborhood gangs in particular covet the weapons they find hidden in glove compartments, tucked into backseat pockets and lying out in the open on center consoles.

“We’ve asked (gang members) the question, ‘Are you breaking into gun stores?’” Milanowski said. “And the answer was, ‘Why would we, when we could break into cars all day and all night long and get guns?’”

Though law enforcement officials are unsure why gun thefts out of cars are spiking, Hicks says it has to do with the price a stolen gun commands on the street.

Unlike other items such as laptops and cell phones, guns maintain their value on the street because of laws dictating who can and cannot buy one. Felons and minors, for example, are prohibited from owning guns and must source their firearms on the street, where they can sell for nearly market value – hundreds of dollars or more. 

That’s true not only in Houston but in cities nationwide, where researchers have also documented a spike in gun thefts from cars. Thefts have been rising for at least 10 years, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, and motor vehicle burglaries now account for over half of all stolen guns in cities that report crime data to the FBI.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Hicks and Milanowski emphasized that gun theft out of cars is preventable. They said safely securing firearms is a key pillar of responsible gun ownership and urged gun owners to invest in gun cases and safes. 

“If you get a gun stolen out of your car, it doesn’t make you a bad person,” Milanowski said. “But you are contributing to the violence in this city and in this county.”

Fred Malinowski, Houston ATF Special Agent in Charge,
Fred Malinowski, Houston ATF Special Agent in Charge, answers questions during an interview at his office, Friday, June 2, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Targeting bar parking lots

The police officer whose guns were stolen out of the car in Humble reported the theft to HPD first thing the next morning. Surveillance footage soon led investigators to Henry Joseph Wilson, 28, who had been charged just six months earlier with stealing two rifles from an unlocked pickup truck in Spring. Officers searched his residence, but the list of stolen items they found there did not include the officer’s guns. 

Wilson has been convicted of car burglary at least twice, his record extending as far back as 2013. He operates as most car burglars do, experts said, breaking into vehicles systematically. Sometimes, they get lucky and find an unlocked car, like Wilson did in Spring. Other times, they need a tool that can break through glass – a center punch, for example, like the Pittsburgh Pro Wilson was carrying when police arrested him for burglarizing the HPD vehicle. 

Center punches – tools designed to break through windows in case of emergencies – are discreet and effective, allowing thieves to move fast. Surveillance footage of car burglaries shows the same process, over and over again – the burglar will shatter the glass on a car window and ransack the vehicle, checking the glove box, backseat pockets and other known hiding places before bolting with any weapons they find. As the police officer in Humble discovered, the whole operation can take just minutes. 

Car thieves are not indiscriminate, however. They target vehicles and locations where they are more likely to find guns. Take the parking lots outside bars, for example. Only members of law enforcement can bring a gun into a bar – other people carrying weapons must leave them behind when they enter the establishment. For many, the solution is to store their gun in their car. 

“Well, crooks know this,” Hicks said. “Crooks looking for guns are going to go to (these) parking lots and start popping in cars.”

“Gun jugging” has also become a problem, said Caroline Dozier, a prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Gun juggers will tail cars as they depart from a shooting range, breaking in when drivers stop to run an errand and leave their weapons behind. 

Places with large numbers of cars parked together at the same time are particularly vulnerable. Burglars favor garages that serve sports stadiums, high-rise apartment complexes and hotels, where they can move quickly from vehicle to vehicle. Overall, southwest Houston, west Houston and downtown Houston report the most gun thefts citywide, Hicks said, with hotspots including the Southwest Freeway, near the Galleria, Richmond Avenue inside Loop 610 and the Greenspoint area.  

The crime, however, can happen anywhere, experts warned, especially when a car owner indicates they might be carrying a weapon or support the Second Amendment. Bumper stickers in particular act as calling cards – those promoting the NRA, military, law enforcement or gun manufacturers are all targets. 

“You might as well put a blinking red light on your car (that says) there’s likely a gun in here,” said Milanowski.

Caroline Dozier, a division chief in the Harris County DA's Felony Trial Division
Caroline Dozier, a division chief in the Harris County DA’s Felony Trial Division, listens to Clare Amari, Houston Landing Reporter, on the issue of guns stolen out of parked cars in Houston on Friday, May 26, 2023. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

‘Be responsible’

To reduce the likelihood of a stolen firearm, experts urged gun owners to take precautions. 

“The best way to prevent a firearm from being stolen in your car is to not leave it in your car,” said Dianna Greenwood, executive director of the Texas State Rifle Association. “If that isn’t possible, then a locked and secured storage box out of sight is recommended.”

Gun storage safes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from small containers that can be fixed in place with a cable and others that bolt into the floor. Most firearms dealers also sell gun cases, safes and trigger locks, the cheapest of which retail at $10. HPD also distributes some sturdier models for free that the retailer Academy Sports and Outdoors provided through a partnership with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, City Council Member Edward Pollard and Houston’s management districts. By the end of March, they had given away 700 safes. Thousands more are on the way, said Hicks. He added that he has received inquiries from cities around the country interested in replicating the program. 

Beyond obtaining a safe, Milanowski said gun owners should record the make, model and serial number of their firearms so that police can trace the weapon if it is stolen. Law enforcement maintains a database of all stolen weapons organized by serial number, making it more likely that gun owners who can provide this information will recover their firearm and easier for law enforcement to level steeper penalties against thieves. 

“This isn’t about taking people’s guns,” said Milanowski. “It’s about asking what people and your community require. If you’re going to have a gun, be responsible with it.”   

Those responsibilities can be steep. In a report issued last month, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy identified 53,985 gun crimes committed in the Houston area between 2018 and 2021. Of these, 1,813 incidents resulted in a fatality, 8,687 resulted in an injury, and 717 resulted in both.

The consequences of this degree of violence, the report said, cannot be understated. 

“Exposure to violence has been associated with many long-term adverse behavioral and mental health outcomes, even for those who are not identified in police reports as victims,” the authors wrote. 

Securing guns in cars, law enforcement said, is a simple step all gun-owners should take to reduce the likelihood that their firearm will be used in a crime.

“If you want to have strong Second Amendment rights, you’ve got to have strong Second Amendment responsibilities,” Milanowski said. “Leaving a gun unsecured in the car any time of day is not being responsible.” 

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Clare Amari covers public safety for the Houston Landing. Clare previously worked as an investigative reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina, where she reported on police use of force, gender-based...