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:

– “A CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) officer left a firearm unsecured in an idling vehicle in the parking lot of a convenience store. The vehicle and firearm were stolen while the officer was inside the store. A local law enforcement officer later recovered the firearm from a suspected gang member and drug smuggler.”
– “A CBP officer left a firearm on a toolbox in the bed of a truck, and the firearm fell off when the officer drove home. Law enforcement officials later recovered the firearm from an individual who resisted arrest and assaulted the arresting officer.”
– “An ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officer left an M-4 rifle and a shotgun unsecured in a closet in his home; subsequently, both firearms were stolen during a burglary. State and federal law enforcement officers later recovered these firearms from a felon.”
– “An ICE officer left a firearm on the bumper of a vehicle, which fell off as the officer left his place of employment. A civilian found the firearm and turned it over to the local police.”

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.

Matt Drange is a reporter for Reveal, covering the business of guns. He previously reported on Silicon Valley and the intersection of technology and the environment. He won a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists' Northern California chapter for his work on the Toxic Trail investigation, which exposed how mismanagement of Superfund cleanup sites often leads to substantially more harm than good. Prior to joining Reveal, Drange worked for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, where he wrote about malfeasance in state government and the influence of money in politics. Drange started his career covering police and courts for the Eureka Times-Standard in California. He earned a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and did his undergraduate work at Humboldt State University. Drange is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.