Unlocked cars become main source of stolen guns, fueling violence on Tampa Bay area streets

Law enforcement agencies across the Tampa Bay area said unlocked cars have become the main source of stolen guns, which are fueling violence on the streets. 

Jayquon Johnson’s bright smile faded away on January 1, 2017, and now it can only be seen in photos. 

"He had an infectious smile that you know would cheer up anyone that was going through anything," said Johnny Johnson. "As a parent, getting that phone call it just shakes you."

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The call Johnny Johnson received has never left his mind. His 17-year-old son, a standout basketball player for Brandon High School, had been shot and killed in Valrico. 

Jayquon Johnson was a basketball player at Brandon High School. He was shot and killed in Valrico when he was 17 years old. 

Nearly five years later, he works to stop gun violence.

"We advocate for victim. Because it’s very hurting. It’s devastating. Nothing soothes that pain," he said.

Johnson is now the co-founder of Rise Up For Peace, which works to reach children before they turn to guns.

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"It hurts every day that we have to encounter some family, some mother, some life that’s not in a club that no one asked to be in," said Johnson.

The 17-year-old's father is now the co-founder of Rise Up For Peace, a group that works to reach children before they turn to guns. 

The shootings do not discriminate and are seen in every community.

"It’s a significant increase, we are seeing this throughout the Tampa Bay area, and we have to come together as a community to stop this. Because more lives will be lost," said Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells.

In 2021, Sheriff Wells said juvenile gun violence began to trend up, as another crime continued on.

"That also has to do with an increase in vehicle burglaries involving juveniles where people have left their cars door unlocked and guns inside," said Sheriff Wells.

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Vehicle burglaries are up 19% in Manatee County. A majority of cars are unlocked and give teens an easy opportunity to get their hands on whatever is left inside – including guns.

"People are dying, because these guns are easy to get ahold of, and if they would do a few simple things every night by removing their guns and all their personal property and locking their doors at night, it would really eliminate a lot of the issues we are seeing out here in our neighborhoods," said Sheriff Wells.

In Sarasota County, guns have been stolen in 25 car break-ins this year alone. The Bradenton Police Department reports show 50 guns stolen from residents in a year’s time. 

A majority are handguns taken from unlocked cars. The St. Petersburg Police Department reported 198 guns stolen in the city with 131 taken from vehicles.

"Unfortunately they go into the wrong hands," said SPPD's Assistant Chief Michael Kovacsev. "They get traded amongst different individuals, and it’s always a cat and mouse game. We are having to realize that a juvenile has a firearm nothing good is going to come out of that."

Assistant Chief Kovacsev said the shootings ebb and flow, but when they do occur, young lives are destroyed.

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"It can be simple subjects that come up from school arguments or neighborhood groups that tend to not get along," he said. "Those are always issues that we try and keep our finger on the pulse of the community to make sure we know what’s going on."

St. Pete police work to remind residents to lock their doors and to not leave guns unsecured. They are also working to reach youth through micro-grants, giving them options before violence occurs.

"By providing financial assistance to local nonprofits as well as the city groups it affords a safe place for them to go and do something productive, and this is really the minimal that we can do to try and encourage good behavior," said Assistant Chief Kovacsev.

Johnny Johnson, the father of Jayquon Johnson, works to make sure others never experience his pain. 

Johnny Johnson will never get his son back, but he works to make sure others never experience his pain. He said it starts with each of us, carrying out our own responsibilities.

"Each child. Each story. It just reopens my life and my compassion for that parent, because I understand those difficult days ahead to where you don’t know if you’ll make it or not," he said.