By some accounts, there are more firearms in the United States than people – a proliferation fueled in part by fear and the resulting desire of self-defense.
But a joint investigation by NBC-Owned Television Stations and the journalism nonprofit The Trace reveals a dangerous side effect of so many guns being stored in homes and vehicles: stolen guns winding up in the wrong hands.
The bounty from law-abiding gun owners is feeding a black market with a deadly impact from coast to coast.
In South Florida, thefts from vehicles is an increasing problem: up nearly 120 percent in Fort Lauderdale and up almost 75 percent in Miami between 2010 and 2015, according to the data compiled by The Trace.
And those guns often turn up at crime scenes.
“There are community guns that criminal organizations share firearms among themselves,” said Ari Shapira, assistant special agent in charge of the Miami division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The customer base: felons, the mentally ill, juveniles – people who cannot legally buy or possess firearms.
Instead, they are sold and traded, borrowed and bartered among a criminal subculture where the gun is a necessary tool of their trade.
An undercover officer for a multiagency gang task force told NBC 6, “These juveniles are obtaining firearms through crimes of burglary, robbery or street sales, illegal street sales.”
And “firearms that are obtained illegally demand a higher price,” said Shapira.
In Pompano Beach, one drug trafficking organization did a booming business with firearms for years, selling 285 of them over a 14-month period.
Unfortunately for them, they sold the guns to an undercover ATF agent.
“We had an undercover, a very experienced undercover who purchased hundreds of guns,” said Shapira, noting at least 40 of the guns purchased by ATF during Operation Clean House were confirmed stolen. They include AR-15s and AK assault weapons, as well as a police sniper rifle.
Sometime gun thieves target gun shops, using a blow torch, a sledgehammer, or a vehicle to gain entry and loot the inventory.
But more often the supply of illegal guns is buoyed by a careless gun owner who leaves his weapon in an unlocked car, or unsecured in a home that becomes a target of burglars.
The NBC Investigative Units and the Trace collected more than 800,000 police reports involving more than a half million guns lost, stolen, found or seized from crime scenes identified more than 23,000 stolen firearms recovered by police between 2010 and 2016 — the vast majority connected with crimes.
That tally, based on an analysis of police records from hundreds of jurisdictions, includes more than 1,500 carjackings and kidnappings, armed robberies at stores and banks, sexual assaults and murders, and other violent acts committed in cities from coast to coast.
“It's not so much surprised me as it does alarm me. It seems to be a growing trend,” said Neil Troppman, a manager at ATF’s National Trace Center. His advice is simple: “Keep them locked up, keep them in a safe place where they can’t be stolen or misused.”
More than 237,000 guns were reported stolen in the United States in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center – but that only includes weapons where serial numbers were known. Studies based on surveys of gun owners estimate that the actual number of firearms stolen each year surpasses 350,000.
“It’s never a good idea to store a firearm in a car,” said Shapira. “Because people steal cars.”
Or, more often, steal from them.
Criminals car surf, combing parking lots at night checking door handles and taking valuables found inside unlocked cars.
Police say they know some gun owners don’t want the weapons around children in their house, but vehicles are not the answer. They recommend safe storage in homes, trigger locks, safes – whatever it takes – but not cars.
Still even some professional law enforcers don’t get the message.
A gun was stolen from a pick-up truck in Southwest Miami-Dade in August.
The victim was a Miami-Dade police officer.