ST. PETERSBURG — As murders in St. Petersburg quickly mount, police have a message for people who keep guns in their cars: “Secure them.”
Of the 150 firearms stolen throughout the city since the start of the year, 111 were taken from vehicles, Assistant Chief Mike Kovacsev told the City Council on Thursday. In the vast majority of those gun theft cases, Kovacsec said, gun owners left their vehicles unlocked with firearms inside.
“Then, those end up in the hands of individuals who should not be having those guns,” he said.
While police say crime across the city is down, homicides have risen sharply. The 20 homicides that have occurred so far this year already eclipse the 15 that occurred through all of 2020. Just Tuesday, 27-year-old Eric Thornhill Chavis was shot and killed at Leanne’s Rental Hall.
At current rates, the total number of homicides by year’s end will soundly pass the high mark shown in police data from the last two decades: 30 murders in 2005.
Kovacsev said that getting gun owners to lock their car doors could help address St. Petersburg’s homicide spike.
Council member Darden Rice suggested the city use public service announcements to make citizens aware of what she described as “an epidemic of unlocked cars that have loaded weapons in them.”
“I mean, come on. Let’s not be dumb here. These guns are finding their ways to the streets,” she said.
Although gun thefts occur opportunistically, when thieves try to open car doors and find them unlocked, Kovacsev said some gun thefts are more intentionally committed by people like juveniles, who can’t legally obtain firearms. More rarely, thieves break windows to get into locked cars where valuables, like purses and computer bags, have been left in plain sight — with a gun inside.
When thieves find firearms in cars, they often sell them, the assistant chief said. With more illegally owned guns in circulation, altercations that might otherwise result in fistfights can end with shooting, and sometimes even homicides.
“It does have an impact. The weapons are out there,” Kovacsev said.
Through June, St. Petersburg gun thefts are on track to hit a yearly high not met since 2017, data shared by police spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez shows. The number of guns taken from vehicles is on course to be the highest in the five years since 2016, the only years for which such data was reviewed.
Council member Brandi Gabbard asked Kovacsev if gun owners whose firearms are stolen and then used in crimes face any penalties. There are no such penalties, Kovacsev said, adding that some people argue penalties could discourage gun owners from reporting thefts when their weapons are stolen.
“The whole responsible gun ownership piece of it is something that I think we as a city really need to get a handle on,” Gabbard said.
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Gabbard told the Tampa Bay Times that the city should work to educate gun owners on the need to secure firearms in their vehicles, adding that preemptive state policy doesn’t allow the city to pass any potential penalties.
St. Petersburg police have recovered 40 stolen firearms so far this year, Kovacsev said.
Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said Thursday that the city must take a more “cognitive look” at the reasons shooting deaths have surged.
“Yes, leaving cars unlocked, absolutely. But conflict resolution, the ‘-isms’ that have arised out of the pandemic, and the lack of having certain resources that all of our residents need to be a productive part of our city play an important role,” Figgs-Sanders said.
As she linked St. Petersburg gun violence to gun violence nationwide, Figgs-Sanders praised local efforts to address the issue, including a new violence-prevention initiative called the Hidden Voices Project. The collaboration between the city and a local nonprofit will involve community members going door to door to provide education and resources to people impacted by recent shootings.
City police officers will also work with children as young as two or three-years-old in a new program Figgs-Sanders called the “Preschool Officers Program.” The effort is aimed at desensitizing kids “to the fear and intimidation of those in uniform,” she said.
“It has to be systematic, it has to be intentional, it has to be a community effort.”