The head of the ATF's office in Los Angeles has sent a memo to Southern California police chiefs and sheriffs saying the agency has found law enforcement officers buying and reselling guns in what could be a violation of federal firearms laws.
The memo from Eric Harden, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Los Angeles Field Division special agent in charge, describes the finding as an "emerging problem" and expresses concern about "the growing trend of law enforcement officials engaging in the business of unlicensed firearms dealing."
He did not say how many officers the agency has found purchasing and reselling weapons, but the memo — dated March 31 — says some officers had bought more than 100 firearms. Some of the guns have been recovered at crime scenes.
But Harden wrote that the goal is "to educate, not investigate, to ensure law enforcement officials comply with federal law in order to avoid unnecessary public embarrassment to themselves and your department/agency."
His memo focuses on the purchase and resale of "off roster" firearms. Those are guns that are not on an approved list of weapons that can be sold to the public.
The California law establishing the roster has an exemption that allows sworn peace officers to purchase such weapons, and an additional one that allows officers to resell the guns under certain conditions. But if officers are buying and reselling weapons for profit as a business, they need a federal firearms license, or FFL.
The lack of a license is the conduct that ATF has uncovered and is the subject of the memo.
That amounts to a violation of federal law, the memo said. In addition, if a gun is bought with the intent to sell it or on behalf of someone else and that was not disclosed on federal transaction records — known as a "straw purchase" — that also breaks federal law for lying on a federal firearms form.
Selling without a license can carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Lying on the federal form carries a maximum 10-year penalty.
It is unclear when the ATF discovered the problems, or what specifically prompted the memo.
Ginger Colbrun, spokeswoman for the ATF Los Angeles office, said the agency noticed that some firearms recovered at crime scenes were found to have been purchased within the past three years.
That "time to crime" measure developed by the ATF shows the time frame from when a gun is sold by a licensed dealer to when it is recovered by police during a criminal investigation. The national average is 10 years. A shorter time period can indicate the gun was the product of a straw purchase — bought in order to be sold quickly.
After spotting the trend in routine trace reports, the agency looked closer, Colbrun said. "After further investigation, ATF noticed some law enforcement officers had been making significant purchases of firearms," she said.
She declined to be more specific, saying there were ongoing investigations.
Colbrun said the memo, addressed to "Dear Law Enforcement Partner," didn't indicate that officers who might be breaking federal gun laws were getting special treatment.
"There is no extra consideration," she said. "We believe the most effective way to stop the behavior is to educate law enforcement in what the laws are and aren't."
The California Police Chiefs Assn., which represents chiefs and sheriffs across the state, emailed the memo to its members this week. It was then forwarded to local agencies.
Federal prosecutions of state law enforcement officers for selling off-roster weapons are rare. The most recent occurred in Sacramento County, when former Sheriff's Deputy Ryan McGowan was found guilty in June 2015 of selling guns illegally and falsifying federal records to do it.
Prosecutors said he sold 25 guns at an inflated price between 2008 and 2011. McGowan also worked with a licensed gun shop to further circumvent federal law.
One sale involved a buyer who converted two guns to assault weapons and later got into a six-hour standoff with a SWAT team. He was sentenced in June to 18 months in prison.
Moran and Winkley write for the San Diego Union-Tribune