Mimesis Law
18 September 2020

Cops Lose Their Guns, So Take Them Away?

June 28, 2016 (Fault Lines) – A San Jose, CA newspaper reports that nearly a thousand firearms owned by Bay Area cops have gone missing since 2010.

The Mercury News says it sent 240 Freedom of Information and California Public Records Act requests for information on missing guns to Bay Area police departments, including the Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose PDs, as well as federal law enforcement agencies. In typical fashion, the feds were slow or unwilling to respond, so we still don’t know which or how many guns federal agents misplace. But many of the municipal, county and state PDs responded with pretty good data.

In the best cases, this includes a breakdown of the time and place a firearm went missing, its type, make, model and caliber, and whether it was reported “stolen,” “lost” or just “unaccounted for.” The reporters put together a database listing the missing guns by police department.

They even added visual cues for cognitively challenged Silicon Valley readers. There’s a little icon for each type of gun (revolvers, shotguns, assault rifles, etc.). This makes scanning the database easy, especially if you want to indulge your outrage. Want to know how many “assault rifles” Bay Area cops lost? Just scroll down, look for all the little AR-15/M4 –shaped icons and feel a sense of righteous indignation.

There’s just one problem. In true California fashion, the vast majority of guns the reporters call “assault rifles” are semiautomatic AR-platform rifles. For a weapon to be an “assault rifle,” it has to be capable of full-auto fire. Many of the guns the Mercury News calls “assault rifles,” chambered in calibers like .223 or .22LR, aren’t even legal for deer hunting in some states due to the low odds of inflicting a fatal wound.

Worse, the database has a separate category for “rifles,” which arbitrarily includes bolt- and lever-action guns only. Then there are the mistakes, like a “Colt M16” inexplicably classed as a revolver or the “Reminington” shotguns.

The reporters do a great job of making it look like cops are losing 700 round/min guns all over the place, but actually, almost every weapon in the database is freely available throughout the US. In total, 4 (0.4%) of the 944 missing guns appear to be capable of automatic fire. Of these, one is a 9mm submachine gun and three are true assault rifles.

Which isn’t to say cops are doing great. 944 guns in six and a half years means they’re losing one gun every two and a half days. California has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, so if you’re a Bay Area resident and you believe regulating or banning guns makes a community safer, the police’s actions directly undermine that goal.

The guns are expensive, and the Mercury Times writes about a number of cases where police guns reported lost or stolen resulted in lengthy, intrusive investigations. These can be pretty banal, as in 2011, when a San Francisco cop’s stepdaughter and her friends had a sleepover at the cop’s house and one of the friends, who allegedly had a gang affiliation, was accused of stealing two Glocks.

They can also be infuriating, as in one case where a state Alcoholic Beverage Control officer reported his gun stolen after he used a carwash. The business, and the homes of carwash employees, were subsequently ransacked by police. A couple days later, the cop found the gun in his gym bag.

Regardless, the taxpayer always foots the bill. Which brings us to another problem. In a time of security threats, gun-control advocates who know there are dangerous people out there have to have confidence in the police to protect them. In the wake of the Mateen shooting, the Orlando medical examiner is refusing to say how many of the Pulse nightclub dead were killed by police. And a significant percentage of the bikers killed in a 2015 brawl in Waco, Texas were shot with police bullets. In the face of challenges like these to the police’s ability to effectively intervene in a crisis, proof that they’re incapable of keeping track of their guns does nothing to bolster their credibility.

So what are we going to do? The Mercury News argues for – what else? – new laws.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, […] is sponsoring legislation that would make it illegal in California for a cop to leave a gun in an unattended car unless it is locked inside a hidden compartment or secure case.

Hill’s colleagues in Congress think this is a great idea.

“It was very staggering for me to find out that there is no set, universal policy at all [on leaving guns in unattended cars] for state, local and federal government,” [U.S. Rep. Mark] DeSaulnier said. “That’s crazy.”

“Crazy,” Mr. DeSaulnier? This is how federalism works.

Senator Hill’s proposal is best described as unworkable. As we’ve seen with body cams, rules for cop behavior tend to be honored in the breach, not the observance. And Hill should be mindful that jumping on the gun-control bandwagon will have repercussions down the road.

A rule that makes it more difficult for cops to get to their weapons puts them at greater risk when they need them. Cops often have call to handle, and sometimes fire, their guns, and it’s unconscionable to put them in more danger than absolutely necessary. And if the moral argument isn’t enough, there’s a pragmatic one.

Consider what happens in New York when you release people accused of crimes. After Tyrone Howard, an accused drug dealer, killed a cop in 2015 while out on bail, the media accused the judge who set him free of complicity in the cop’s death. Any politician worth his salt would avoid that kind of controversy. Fortunately, Hill has that option.

Bail is an important function of the criminal justice system. Disarming cops is not.

12 Comments on this post.

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  • Bill Robelen
    28 June 2016 at 11:04 am - Reply

    I partly wish that police departments followed the same policy we have in the military. Any time any weapon, from a 9 mm pistol to a .50 cal machine gun goes missing, the unit goes on lockdown while they search all bags, and any vehicles, even walking across every field the unit was in until the weapon is found.

  • LTMG
    28 June 2016 at 11:20 am - Reply

    While in the Army, the principle of always being 100% accountable for one’s weapon was a part of my every moment, even when asleep. Penalties for losing one’s weapon, regardless of grade or rank, were severe and almost always ended one’s military career. Clearly, this level of accountability is generally not in place for law enforcement officers in many departments in California. Why not?

  • Donald
    28 June 2016 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    “A rule that makes it more difficult for cops to get to their weapons puts them at greater risk when they need them. ”

    Nice strawman there, guy. When cops are on duty, their weapons are on their person, or secured in the cop car. This changes nothing for on duty cops.

    This would subject cops to a portion of the scrutiny that civilian gun owners face, so naturally law enforcement is against it, despite an obvious lack of competence in basic firearm safety.

  • David Meyer Lindenberg
    28 June 2016 at 1:20 pm - Reply
    • maz
      29 June 2016 at 2:02 am - Reply

      But if I’m not a cop, that gun already *has* to be in a locked container, so for me this new law only means I have to place that container in the trunk or under the seat when I leave the vehicle. Which anyone with half a brain would do anyway, right? (For that matter, the law very well could be that I, as a private citizen, already have to secure guns left in an unattended vehicle, but it’s always such a pain to drag my way through California’s statutes I didn’t make it through all the potentially applicable clauses.) So, yes, it essentially *is* directed at various gun-toting government agents.

      Accordingly, I’m not quite sure in what ‘obvious’ way this could go wrong. Abandoning your strawman about how the law insidiously applies to everyone, not just cops, precisely what horrors do you see lying ahead? For instance, here on the left coast police shotguns appear to be stored in police car trunks rather than between the passenger seats as I was accustomed to seeing back East: Has this practice resulted in some horrid massacre of which I’m not aware?

      And, let’s not forget, we’re talking *unattended* vehicles. While my first-hand experience with law enforcement is limited to traffic stops, being mugged (in front of the FBI building, actually), having my door kicked in by the feds looking to arrest a housemate, and a staged arrest, incarceration, and trial for a video made for ‘Law Enforcement Day’ back in high school, after decades of police dramas I was unaware of any common police procedure in which an on-duty officer leaves his or her sidearm unattended in a vehicle with the intention of running back to said vehicle, grabbing the weapon, and firing it. Should I be wrong, I suppose the proposed law *could* interfere–

      —wait, never mind:

      “25452 (d). This section does not apply to a peace officer during circumstances requiring immediate aid or action that are within the course of his or her official duties.”

      I have to agree with Donald: This law merely codifies basic firearms safety. While I realize a core tenet of The War on Cops is humiliatingly to force them to be accountable to the same laws as everyone else, I find myself having to repeat the Peace Officer Mantra: If they’re not doing anything wrong, they have nothing to worry about.

      • David Meyer Lindenberg
        29 June 2016 at 5:07 am - Reply

        (For that matter, the law very well could be that I, as a private citizen, already have to secure guns left in an unattended vehicle, but it’s always such a pain to drag my way through California’s statutes I didn’t make it through all the potentially applicable clauses.)

        “Unattended” has nothing to do with it. Under current law, if you’re transporting a handgun in a car and you’re not a cop or otherwise exempt, it has to be stored in a locked container. (25610(a) PC)

        […]place that container in the trunk[…]

        Interesting. You’ve replicated a mistake in Hill’s bill. Under 16850 PC, the trunk is itself a locked container.

        […]police shotguns appear to be stored in police car trunks[…]

        As the database and the Mercury News article show, cops are frequently not storing their guns, of various kinds, in locked containers. Which is why Hill’s bill is a thing.

        So it’s too bad that it wouldn’t really change things. The bill applies to handguns only. 16640(a) and 16530(a) PC establish that rifles and shotguns aren’t covered, so the bill wouldn’t force cops to lock up their longarms.

        Interestingly, even non-cops currently aren’t required to transport longarms in a locked container. The Penal Code is totally silent on this. So you can make a strong argument that the bill fixes little.

        […]on-duty officer[…]

        No, no, no. “On-duty” has nothing to do with it. Say you’re an off-duty cop, leave your handgun in your car and it turns out you need it quick. Better hope you get it in time.

        “25452 (d). This section does not apply to a peace officer during circumstances requiring immediate aid or action that are within the course of his or her official duties.”

        This means that a cop can leave his handgun lying around if he has to do something urgent. It’s unresponsive to the problem of unforeseen circumstances.

        Don’t let your hatred of cops blind you to the issues. Pointing out that most of these arguments work just as well for non-cops doesn’t help your case. If anything, it highlights the absurdity of imposing the rule at all.

    • maz
      29 June 2016 at 2:36 am - Reply

      Oh, FWIW, whenever someone chooses to dismiss firearms-related concerns because the concerned used the term ‘assault rifle’ instead of ‘assault weapon,’ it reminds me of the asshole who, when someone refers to a tomato as a vegetable, always pipes up to mention it actually is a *fruit*. Yes, and a strawberry isn’t really a berry, either. But when you go to Safeway to buy tomatoes, you look for them with the other vegetables, and you see nothing wrong about the produce manager placing strawberries next to the blueberries instead of creating a special ‘aggregate accessory fruit’ section for them and blackberries.

      Why? Because humans naturally tend to classify things by *function*. So a fleshy fruit (actually, a berry) typically served in savory dishes and alongside leafy and root vegetables is, to most people and for most purposes, a vegetable. Similarly, a medium- or high-powered firearm, accurate at long ranges, and capable of firing roughly once a second for the full capacity of its magazine *is* to the average unarmed (or, hell, averaged *armed*) citizen an *assault* weapon: Outside of target shooting (or, frankly, shooting a lot just for the fun of it), there is *no* reasonable use for such a rate of fire other than to overwhelm, either as part of an offensive or to provide covering fire. To argue 700 rounds per minute is substantially different than 50 or 60 rounds per minute to the average citizen — or, frankly, to anyone other than an ammunition manufacturer — is condescending and misleading.

      If you’re writing an RFP for the military, then, yes, ‘assault rifle’ is a term of the art — the same way ‘berry’ and ‘aggregate accessory fruit’ are to a botanist. For the rest of us, though, they’re terms of art only for an asshole….

      • David Meyer Lindenberg
        29 June 2016 at 5:19 am - Reply

        No, I’d dismiss your firearms-related concerns even harder if you said “assault weapon,” because “assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term. “Assault rifle” does have a meaning, but the Mercury News reporters don’t know what it is.

        • maz
          29 June 2016 at 8:13 am - Reply

          [i]“assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term.[/i]

          Well, except for its having been defined in a number of state and federal statutes.

          [i]“Assault rifle” does have a meaning, but the Mercury News reporters don’t know what it is.[/i]

          So, what is the difference between an aggregate fruit and an aggregate accessory fruit? More importantly, how does the Mercury News’s non-canonical use of “assault rifle” change the significance of the story?

          • David Meyer Lindenberg
            29 June 2016 at 9:32 am -

            NB: This will be our last trip down this rabbit hole.

            a medium- or high-powered firearm, accurate at long ranges, and capable of firing roughly once a second for the full capacity of its magazine *is* to the average unarmed (or, hell, averaged *armed*) citizen an *assault* weapon

            This is the first way the phrase is meaningless. Maz made up a definition at random. Many gun controllers with similarly squishy feelings have similar definitions. Few are consistent or allow you to draw a principled distinction between assault and non-assault weapons. None are widely accepted.

            Many, like Maz’s, are fractally useless because of phrases like “medium- or high-powered” (meaningless), “accurate at long ranges” (vague) and “capable of firing roughly once a second for the full capacity of its magazine” (clueless; you can fire just about any gun that quickly.)

            Which brings us to the second way the phrase is meaningless. Several states, including California, have “assault weapons” bans. The federal government had one between ’94 and ’04. They come in one or both of two flavors: lists of guns and lists of features a gun has to have to be considered an “assault weapon.”

            The weapons lists, as in California, are random smorgasbords of stuff people in the ’90s saw in movies or heard about from the media and think is scary. There’s no consistency from gun to gun, weapons that work the same way are excluded and as I point out in the article, some of the guns called “assault weapons” by advocates and “assault rifles” by the Mercury News don’t inflict enough damage with a shot to be hunt-legal in many states.

            As for the features lists, they target cosmetic features, stuff that looks scary to the uninitiated but doesn’t affect how the gun works. (In California, it’s “detachable magazines,” “flash suppressors,” two types of “pistol grips” and “thumbhole stocks.”) For 25 years, gun manufacturers have been tweaking their designs in minor ways to make up for it. None of it gives you a useful way to distinguish between assault and non-assault weapons.

  • maz
    1 July 2016 at 8:52 am - Reply

    For those keeping score, anyone requiring further proof of my contention that the more rabid gun rights advocates[1] often rely upon needless adherence to a canonical definition of ‘assault rifle’ as a way to avoid meaningful discussion and dismiss or malign those with whose opinions they disagree need look no further than Lindenburg’s last two [non-]responses. Again: Nothing in the original article or in my discussion turned upon a *legal* definition of ‘assault rifle’ or ‘assault weapon’; at the same time, the firearms so described fully met any rational interpretation of the term. (For example, a submachine gun is *not* an assault rifle; however, to the average citizen it would certainly meet the *functional* definition of one.)

    None of this is to argue against insistence upon a strict, legal definition when such a thing is called for. (Although, unlike Lindenberg, I also understand a ‘legal definition’ can be different from one commonly in use, arbitrary, or even nonsensical; simply because I disagree with it or manage to pick holes in it doesn’t make it ‘meaningless.’) However, insisting upon adherence to a narrow, technical definition under all contexts — or, worse, using such adherence as a litmus test for whether or not to dismiss another’s concerns or remain civil to the one concerned — is a small-minded, condescending dodge that contributes nothing but animosity to the ongoing debate.

    1. Presumably, that is; however, that interpretation is based entirely upon his rush to presume *my* position on gun ownership and control simply because I called him out for being intellectually lazy. For the record, I am an occasional recreational shooter who numbers among my clients a well-known manufacturer of scopes and accessories for long-range and target shooting.

  • How Salon Botched The Bundy Verdict
    4 November 2016 at 8:57 am - Reply

    […] Passing over the fact that “assault rifle” has a meaning, one that isn’t “whatever Salon writers want it to be,” and that none of the Malheur occupiers […]