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.