The recovery of the gun purportedly used in a fatal shooting on the Embarcadero from the San Francisco Bay earlier this month has dredged up a debate over a persistent problem for law enforcement agencies: government-owned guns getting into the hands of criminals.
Officials investigating Kathryn Steinle’s killing confirmed this week that the recovered gun belonged to a federal agent. While initially widely reported as stolen from a federal Bureau of Land Management ranger’s personal car, that connection remains unclear.
Law enforcement agencies have struggled for years to keep track of their employees’ guns. A 2007 FBI intelligence bulletin obtained by Reveal warned that law enforcement vehicles increasingly were being targeted by thieves.
“Law enforcement officials are also at risk of becoming potential targets of criminals with violent intentions,” the memo from the agency’s Washington, D.C., field office concluded. Intelligence bulletins are one of the FBI’s primary ways to communicate trends to law enforcement, sent to 18,000 agencies nationwide.
The FBI declined to comment for this story. Law enforcement agencies are supposed to report missing guns to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. But that doesn’t always happen, and the FBI won’t release the contents of its database, which it deems “law enforcement sensitive.”
Shortly after the FBI issued its 2007 bulletin, another federal agency under the Department of Homeland Security – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – faced a rash of government vehicle burglaries in the Houston area in which weapons were stolen, according to internal agency documents.
A 2010 audit by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security identified 289 guns lost or stolen from its agencies between 2006 and 2008, and found that guns lost by government agents “pose serious risks to the public and law enforcement officers.”
The audit also noted that, “Although some reported losses were beyond the officers’ control, most losses occurred because officers did not properly secure firearms.”
Examples highlighted include:
It’s unclear how many times Bureau of Land Management employees have lost their weapons in recent years. The agency did not immediately respond to requests from Reveal for statistics on this.
In a jailhouse interview, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez – a repeat felon – has acknowledged only that he accidentally fired the weapon, which he said he found wrapped inside a T-shirt. While dozens of news outlets have reported that the recovered BLM gun was used to commit the homicide, bureau officials would not confirm that was the case.
“We don’t have any information that links this gun to the murder,” BLM spokeswoman Dana Wilson said, even after the agency announced that one of its rangers recently reported a semi-automatic handgun stolen out of his personal car in downtown San Francisco.
The ranger, whose name was not released, was traveling on assignment when the gun was stolen, Wilson said. He reportedly filed a police report with the San Francisco Police Department on June 27, a document that Wilson said has been sealed.
The gun recovered from the bay after the shooting was submitted by the police department for ballistics testing and remained at its crime lab today. Department spokesman Michael Andraychak referred questions about the gun to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón’s office.
Maxwell Szabo, a spokesman for Gascón, would not say if the missing BLM gun was used by Sanchez.
“The only thing I can confirm at this point is that the gun in this case was a federal agent’s gun,” Szabo said.