The Feds Lose Hundreds of Guns a Year, and They Keep Turning Up in Bay Area Homicides

A sick sense of déjà vu accompanied the announcement last week that the gun used to kill Oakland muralist Antonio Ramos in September was the same weapon stolen from a federal agent’s car in San Francisco weeks earlier. A federal agent’s gun was also the murder weapon in the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle in July, and again in that case the weapon was snatched during a car break-in.

In neither case is it clear how a government-issued sidearm got into the hands of the killer. Alleged Steinle shooter Francisco Sanchez says he found the Bureau of Land Management ranger’s gun stashed under a bench on Pier 14, a head-scratching claim that is probably impossible to disprove no matter how unlikely it sounds. The burglary of the ICE-issued gun that killed Ramos was solved, but without securing the missing weapon.

Federal agents and police lose track of their guns all the time. UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett had her gun stolen out of her car in August. Cops in San Francisco and Hayward pulled similar boners this year, too. FBI agents, DEA agents, and even a Secret Service agent assigned to protect President Obama have suffered the same embarrassment, almost always because the guns were left in cars, just like the ones that killed Ramos and Steinle.

This is a trend with a long and unfortunate pedigree: A GAO report from 2003 showed that federal agents lose about 250 guns every year, 80 percent of which are never recovered. This includes the occasional shotgun and “submachine gun.” More recently (and embarrassingly), the ATF, the very federal agency tasked with preventing illegal gun trafficking, lost about a dozen guns every year from 2009 to 2013.

That’s just too many guns, guys.

[jump] In fairness, this is a tiny number compared to the hundreds of thousands of other firearms the ATF estimates are also stolen every year. But there’s an important distinction: There is no federal law regulating how civilians store guns. Federal agencies, on the other hand, issue strict rules about handling weapons. Which are then ignored.

Or so we‘re forced to assume.

In most cases, we don’t even know what the rules are because G-men are notoriously tight-lipped about them. (San Francisco magazine’s Joe Eskenazi spent months trying to get the Bureau of Land Management to explain their policy on the proper storage of firearms, only to get essentially a blank sheet of paper in response.)

There is at least a halfway reasonable excuse for this: If the public knew where the feds stashed guns, it would only make it easier to steal them. Fair enough, but there’s one big problem: Whatever the rules are, it seems a lot of people aren’t bothering to follow them, and at some point there needs to be accountability to the public.

Given that carelessly “lost” guns have now killed two people in the Bay Area in a span of under three months, that point is now. But ICE has not commented so far, and nobody’s exactly holding their breath.

It’s not surprising that they want to keep covering their butts, but what will it take for this seemingly simple lesson to sink in? Even non gun-owners in San Francisco know that the dumbest thing you can do is leave your gun in the car, so there’s no excuse for trained law officers to do it this often.

Supervisor David Campos has proposed a city law that would make it a misdemeanor for anyone to leave an unsecured gun in a car. Campos called it a “no-brainer.” He’s right.

One missing gun is a drop in a bucket in America’s gun-saturated culture, but again and again we keep learning how easily one missing gun can become one too many. 

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