This story is a collaboration between NBC Bay Area and The Trace. You can read the story from The Trace here.
Thousands of guns that were illegally possessed or tied to a suspected crime are likely going untraced by the federal government because law enforcement agencies across the state are failing to properly log them in the state’s firearms database. Experts say that failure could jeopardize investigations into traffickers running guns across state or county lines and keep important leads out of the hands of detectives.
Each year, law enforcement agencies across the state recover thousands of guns, most of which are linked to a suspected crime. Each of those guns is supposed to be entered into California’s Automated Firearms System (AFS). If police flag the gun as a crime gun within the AFS, it’s automatically routed to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to be traced through the federal eTrace program.
Without that crime gun designation, however, the gun is not automatically traced.
Tracing can reveal who first legally bought the gun, and where it was sold, information that can lead investigators to shooting suspects or trafficking rings. The process is considered so valuable that California legislators passed a law back in 2001 requiring police to enter every potential crime gun they recover into the state’s AFS and routed to the feds for tracing.
But a joint investigation by NBC Bay Area and The Trace, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to reporting on guns and gun violence, found law enforcement agencies across California have incorrectly entered thousands of crime guns in the AFS over the past decade, preventing them from being automatically traced.
“It’s a disservice to the community that they serve because they should be utilizing all investigative efforts and avenues that they could possibly use to solve their crime,” said Jill Snyder, a former Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s San Francisco field office.
“It’s intelligence information that assists you in your investigation to help you develop other potential suspects and to help you solve crimes.”
More than 150 law enforcement agencies across the state classified less than half of their recovered guns as crime guns between 2010 and 2020, according to data from the California Department of Justice obtained by NBC Bay Area and The Trace under the California Public Records Act.
In the Bay Area last year, nine separate agencies didn’t flag a single firearm they recovered as a crime gun.
In total, California police failed to tag more than 90,000 suspected crime guns in the AFS, nearly one in every four guns that should have been automatically traced.
“Tracing is part and parcel of the basic investigative process,” said Jim Bueermann, a former Southern California police chief who is now a senior fellow at the National Police Foundation, a think tank. “I can think of no legitimate justification or rationale for any agency that knows about firearms tracing not to do it.”
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, for example, entered 3,000 evidence guns into the state’s database without designating a single one as a crime gun. The agency did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The California Department of Justice confirmed that any gun entered as evidence should also be tagged as a crime gun.
Despite widespread noncompliance with the law, a justice department spokesperson said the legislature never specified penalties for agencies who fail to correctly log their recovered firearms. But the Bureau of Firearms sends letters to police across the state each year reminding them of their duty.
“The Bureau of Firearms annually sends letters to heads of law enforcement agencies notifying them of how many AFS entries of various types were made in the past year, and reminding them of mandated reporting requirements,” the spokesperson said in an email. “These letters do not specifically focus on improper entries, but could be used by law enforcement agencies to identify reporting issues.”
In Oakland, the data shows, police have flagged just five crime guns in the AFS, despite recovering hundreds of firearms each year. The department told us they enter every gun they recover directly into the federal eTrace system.
But that approach prevents investigators with the California Department of Justice from accessing the data and is a violation of California law. A department spokesperson said the agency plans to resume use of the state system early next year.
Some detectives who spoke to NBC Bay Area said eTrace wasn’t always fruitful in generating leads in local cases because crime guns are often stolen or bought on the black market. But they said feeding crime guns into the system gives the feds critical data.
“[It’s helpful] as far as who’s gathering these firearms, who’s selling these on the black market, so we can start pinpointing who we need to go after for our investigations,” said Sgt. Chris Mears of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Gang Suppression Unit.
According to data from the ATF, California law enforcement agencies recover at least 10,000 firearms each year that were originally sold in Nevada, Arizona, and other states with weaker gun laws.
Next year, a new state law will require the California Department of Justice to analyze its own crime gun data and make annual reports to the legislature.
“It’ll give our state tools to basically track illegal guns throughout California,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, who authored the bill. “Some of these unscrupulous gun dealers make up for the lion’s share of what we call crime guns.”
McCarty said his legislation will help state law enforcement officials go after people skirting the state’s tough gun laws without being reliant on the ATF.
“We can stop gun violence before it even happens,” McCarty said.
But the law’s effectiveness will still be tied in part to law enforcement agencies properly entering crime guns in the state database.
Further complicating tracing efforts is the rise in so-called Ghost Guns, self-made firearms without a serial number that can be assembled from kits in less than an hour. As NBC Bay Area and The Trace reported earlier this year (LINK), ghost guns are being linked to Bay Area crimes in record numbers.
"If you show up at a crime scene and you have a ghost gun that has no serial number on it, it absolutely cripples law enforcement's ability to solve that crime," said San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani.
Earlier this year, Stefani proposed a ban on the sale and possession of ghost gun kits, which was later approved.
"From 2016 to 2020, the increase in ghost gun seizures was up 2,700 percent," Stefani said. "So I knew I had to do something."
But even as police sound the alarm about untraceable ghost guns, thousands of recovered firearms with perfectly legible serial numbers are still not being traced.