New federal strike force aims to cut inflow of guns to L.A. and target ‘ghost gun’ sellers

Michel Moore, with city officials and police officers behind him, speaks at a lectern.
LAPD Police Chief Michel Moore laments increased shootings in South L.A. at a news conference in October. A new federal strike force aims to interrupt the supply of guns into the city.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A new federal strike force launched by the U.S. Justice Department on Thursday will focus on disrupting the illegal flow of weapons into Los Angeles from neighboring states while also going after makers of local “ghost guns,” according to local and federal authorities.

Both sources of weapons are a major driver of violence within L.A., and local officials hope their disruption will help stem the city’s increasing levels of shootings and homicides.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said ghost guns — many of them locally made — now account for a third of all weapons recovered by the LAPD. Others, he said, come from known trafficking routes into L.A. from sellers in Arizona, Nevada and Utah.


“Suspects go to those locations,” Moore said, “buy those weapons because of lax or permissive gun laws and then traffic those weapons here and sell them to the market of people who are not lawfully able to own or possess or purchase a weapon.”

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The new federal effort will target “heavy players” responsible for making or moving large quantities of weapons into the city, “because the idea is to interrupt the supply cycle,” Moore said.

It will be less likely to focus on federal firearm licensees known to be selling weapons in the L.A. area, Moore said, because “there’s a finite number of them in this region, they’re well policed, they’re well managed, [and] they’re well supervised by ATF and frankly by our gun detail.”

“This is about the underground providers, the unlicensed,” Moore said. “These are individuals that are just absolutely selling product in an underground market.”

Federal authorities touted the Thursday launch of five such teams — in L.A.; New York; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and the San Francisco Bay Area — as reflecting the Biden administration’s commitment to halting the nation’s increasing gun violence.


“All too often, guns found at crime scenes come from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. We are redoubling our efforts as ATF works with law enforcement to track the movement of illegal firearms used in violent crimes,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland said in a statement. “These strike forces enable sustained coordination across multiple jurisdictions to help disrupt the worst gun trafficking corridors.”

Shootings and homicides have surged nationally since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year and the associated social and economic shutdowns. L.A. has been no exception.

As of Tuesday, homicides were up nearly 30% over last year, and shootings were up 43%. The city ended 2020 with 350 homicides, the most in a decade.

To help disrupt the violence, the federal strike forces, led by agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, will “share information and otherwise collaborate across districts where firearms trafficking schemes cross state or jurisdictional boundaries to focus enforcement against entire trafficking networks,” the Justice Department said.

It said the teams would do so “from the places where guns are unlawfully obtained to the areas where they are used to commit violent crimes.”

Moore said the initiative wouldn’t “change the entire course of the world,” as the LAPD and other agencies already work with the ATF on such investigations, but would add strength to those efforts.

Along with federal agents teaming up with local officers and detectives in greater numbers, officials said federal prosecutors would coordinate with the strike forces to review cases and prosecute any individuals who had broken federal gun trafficking laws — which can carry stiffer sentences than state cases.

Moore said he hoped the increased threat of federal prosecution would serve as a new deterrent for would-be gun traffickers, who he said are motivated by greed.

“Make no mistake about it. The people who are purveying these guns and trafficking are doing it for one reason: the almighty buck,” Moore said. “We need to create a consequence for that that deters others from coming into it while we pick off those that are causing, in my belief fueling, this bloodshed.”

Moore said the LAPD knew there were specific pipelines that landed guns in the hands of L.A. criminals, because those guns are recovered during police investigations and then traced back to their origins by LAPD detectives.

“You can cycle and track them back to a parking lot in a trunk of a vehicle at an Arizona gun show,” Moore said, as one example.

In other cases, individuals arrested with ghost guns acknowledge that they’ve been purchased on the growing “underground market” for such weapons within L.A., he said.

Such pathways for guns to land on the streets of L.A. are constantly evolving and, therefore, difficult to permanently disrupt, Moore said. However, the added federal resources will help in the fight, he said, including in South L.A. and other areas of the city that have been hardest hit by recent violence.

“It’s not like we have a pipeline where, well, we just cut the pipe,” Moore said. “The adversaries adjust their tactics, adjust their routes, and we will be pursuing those.”

Nearly a fourth of LAPD officers involved in incidents where serious force was used failed to activate their body cameras in a timely manner, according to a review of such cases.

July 20, 2021