A letter from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to law enforcement agencies across Southern California warning about an "emerging problem" of officers engaging in unlicensed firearms sales came just weeks after a Pasadena police officer's home was searched and guns seized.
The March 31 letter from Eric Harden, special agent in charge at the ATF's Los Angeles Field Division, said the agency has discovered officers buying and then reselling handguns without a federal firearms license. That violates federal gun laws.
The ATF letter, first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, came after a Feb. 16 search of the home of a high-ranking Pasadena police officer. News reports at the time said several large gun cases were removed from the officer's Sierra Madre home and loaded into ATF vehicles.
No arrests were made, but the Pasadena Star-News reported that an officer was placed on administrative leave after the search.
A city spokesman said the ATF search did not have anything to do with the officer's work with the department. Pasadena city offices were closed Friday. Authorities did not release the officer's name, and a spokeswoman for the ATF declined to comment on ongoing investigations.
Harden's letter said the agency recently has discovered officers who had purchased more than 100 "off-roster" guns. Those are guns that are not on a California list of approved handguns that can be purchased by the public. Some have been recovered at crime scenes.
The law, however, carves out a specific exemption that allows police officers to purchase such weapons.
The letter from Harden, which was distributed to sheriffs and police chiefs, talked about "the growing trend of law enforcement officials engaging in the business of unlicensed firearms dealings."
It is an issue that the ATF has focused on before. In 2011, the agency served search warrants in an investigation into deputies in the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department and officers in the cities of Roseville and Sacramento for selling weapons that the vast majority of California residents can't purchase.
That investigation prompted bills by a state legislator to close the loophole that allows law enforcement to buy and sell such weapons. Both attempts in 2012 and 2013 were vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. At the center of the issue is a list, or roster, of handguns the state has designated as "safe" and that can be legally purchased by residents.
The roster is a result of California's 2001 Unsafe Handgun Act, which requires the state to make a list of guns deemed safe enough to sell. New micro-stamping requirements on bullets fired from semiautomatic pistols took effect in 2013, shortening the roster. In 2014, for example, 1,152 handguns were on the list. Currently, the number is down to 755.
There are exceptions to the law. Firearms that aren't on the roster that were purchased before they fell off the list can legally be kept, and off-roster guns passed on to family members.
Some law enforcement members can also purchase off-roster weapons. They can also legally resell them, including to Californians who would not ordinarily be allowed to buy them.
Officers primarily sell off-roster weapons through a transaction called a private-party transfer. After law enforcement officers acquire off-roster guns, there are a variety of reasons they may want to get rid of them.
The officers might not like the way they handle or decide to upgrade to a new model. At that point, California law allows them to transfer the weapon to another person who can legally possess a gun — law enforcement or otherwise — through a licensed firearms dealer.