Did Tennessee’s 2016 Law that Allowed People to Store Guns in Vehicles Increase the Number of Stolen Guns?

Feb 3, 2024 | Original Research

Here is the claim from News Channel 5 in Nashville.

. . . it was dubbed the “guns in trunks” bill.

That law specified that the firearm needed to be “kept from ordinary observation and locked within the trunk, glove box, or interior of the person’s motor vehicle or a container securely affixed to the motor vehicle if the person is not in the motor vehicle.”

. . .But when NewsChannel 5 Investigates crunched the TBI data, we discovered that, in 2013, the year the law was first passed, there were just 46 guns reported stolen from motor vehicles for the entire state of Tennessee.

Three years later, that number had shot up to more than 2,000 reported cases. The next year, more than 4,000.

By 2022, there were almost 5,400 guns reported stolen from cars and trucks statewide. . . .

Phil Williams, “REVEALED: Nearly 30,000 firearms stolen from vehicles since Tennessee GOP relaxed gun laws ,” News Channel 5 (Nashville), January 30, 2024

The numbers from News Channel 5 are very attention-getting, with a massive 43- to 117-fold increase in the theft of guns from vehicles, but there is a big problem with measuring the number of guns stolen from vehicles. Presumably, if it was illegal for you to have a gun in your car, much of the increase in reports of guns stolen from vehicles might only be because people were then willing to report guns stolen that way once it was legal to do so starting in 2016.

A more useful measure of stolen guns would be to see if there was a change in the total number of stolen after accounting for the number of concealed handgun permit holders (data on the number of stolen guns is from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Information Center and the number of concealed handgun permits from the CPRC’s annual reports and the GAO’s 2011 numbers). In other words, did the law increase the total number of guns stolen? A reason for looking at the total number stolen is that if people are carrying guns outside the home, it lowers the risk that burglars will be able to steal the guns from their homes when people are away. The changes in the number of concealed handgun permit holders will likely be related to the number of people who will want to lock up their guns in their cars.

The total in the five years after the law was 10.4% lower than in the five years before it. Comparing the five years before the law with all seven years afterwards shows a 13.7% drop in the rate that are guns stolen.

Data on the Number of Total Number of Guns Stolen and Number of Concealed Handgun Permits
YearNational Crime Information Center on Total Number of Stolen GunsNumber of Concealed Handgun PermitsRate Total Stolen per 1,000 Permit Holders
2011                                        5,772341,00016.93
2012                                        5,996383,36015.64
2013                                        6,345425,71914.90
2014                                        6,273468,07913.40
2015                                        7,192504,38414.26
2016                                        8,148560,93314.53
2017                                        9,006594,49815.15
2018                                        8,897618,75214.38
2019                                        7,228641,19111.27
2020                                        8,182681,42012.01
2021                                        8,830741,91511.90
2022                                        8,472731,80011.58
Average Five Years Before 6,316424,50815.03
Average Five Years After 8,292619,35913.47
Percent Change 31.3%45.9%-10.4%

Here is a figure that shows the total number of guns stolen. In this case, the number of guns stolen is 16.9% higher in the five years after the law than the five years before it. However, given that the number of concealed handgun permit holders and the population are increasing, one would expect the number of guns stolen also to increase. The previous graph accounts for this trend because it is the rate per permit holder. And, indeed, the total number of stolen guns was increasing before the law went into effect. While the number of guns stolen in the first three years after the law is above the pre-law trend, it is below the trend in three of the four years after the law is in effect. This graph is useful because if the total number of stolen guns wasn’t affected by the 2016 law, it would be hard to blame the law for any changes in crime committed with stolen guns.