An Associated Press investigation has found that police officers in California have bought 7,600 assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in the past 10 years that civilians can't buy – all legally. But it’s not clear if they bought those firearms to use on the job.
The state law that lets officers buy assault weapons took effect a few years after a wild North Hollywood shootout in 1997. Two armed-to-the-teeth bank robbing bandits clad in body armor poured down automatic weapons fire at LAPD cops armed only with shotguns and pistols.
Some officers grabbed more powerful rifles from a gun store to even the odds. Police agencies later lobbied for an exemption in the state’s assault weapons ban so officers could buy them to use on the job, which became law in 2001.
LAPD Commander Andy Smith told the AP that his department isn’t interested in “loading up people’s gun closets with assault weapons.” He says they’re for use on duty. Smith spend $1,200 on his own gun. "The idea is that these guys would be able to have these in the trunks of their police cars if they're needed."
A department-by-department breakdown of purchases made this year, released as part of the AP's records request, shows that Los Angeles Police Department officers bought 146 guns, the most in the state. The department's policy says the guns are to be used only for police purposes.
Today, about 1,300 of the nearly 10,000 LAPD officers have assault rifles, more than 500 of them purchased by the officers themselves.
Investigators have not said what kinds of weapons were involved, but did say they were ones that officers can buy but civilians cannot. That category also can include certain types of handguns and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
One state lawmaker says maybe it’s time to tighten up California’s assault weapons exemption.
"I think it's much more questionable whether we should allow peace officers to have access to weapons or firearms that a private citizen wouldn't have access to if the use is strictly personal," said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, a Democrat who represents the Sacramento region.
The information was obtained through a California Public Records Act request filed after federal authorities served search warrants in November as part of ongoing investigation into allegations of illegal weapons sales by several Sacramento-area law enforcement officers.
The investigation has raised questions about the kinds of restricted weapons that the more than 87,000 peace officers in the state are entitled to purchase and about a 2001 law that allows them to buy assault weapons "for law enforcement purposes, whether on or off duty."
The AP found that some departments allow officers to use the weapons in their off time while others require that the weapons be used only on-duty, although an opinion by the state attorney general issued last year says officers can acquire the guns for any purpose but must relinquish them when they retire.
Officers in the San Diego Police Department, Riverside County Sheriff's Department and Long Beach Police Department also registered large numbers of assault weapons so far this year.
The law allows any law enforcement officer, including prison guards, game wardens and school police, to use their own money to buy the weapons, provided they get permission from their departments.
It was revised with the goal of helping police departments that could not afford to buy powerful firearms, said Dickinson, the chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review.
Just six other states and the District of Columbia restrict ownership of assault weapons, all with exemptions for law enforcement officers. Connecticut, Maryland and Massachusetts require that officers possess the weapons only while performing official duties. The other 43 states permit civilian ownership of assault weapons, although Minnesota and Virginia ban them for those under age 18.
Assault weapons include semi-automatic military-style rifles typically used by law enforcement, as well as some pistols and shotguns. The semi-automatic variety fire one bullet with each pull of the trigger.
No charges have been filed in the Sacramento-area investigation, which is being led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The departments named in the probe — the Sacramento and Roseville police departments and the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department — allow officers to purchase the assault guns for personal use.
Agencies that allow their officers to buy assault weapons for off-duty purposes face potential legal liability if the gun is misused, said Steve Lindley, chief of the state Department of Justice Bureau of Firearms.
The Oakland Police Department is among those that do not require officers to limit use of the weapons to their job.
Officer Chris Saunders, with the department's firearms training unit, said 80 weapons are issued by the agency, but he and some other officers bought their own to use for target practice while off duty.
Oakland City Councilwoman Jane Brunner questioned the policy, particularly for a department that has a reputation for excessive force, most recently against Occupy protesters.
"I do not believe the police officers should be able to buy them personally anymore," she said. "Particularly after everything that has happened in Oakland, we need to make sure our officers are following protocol."
The 2001 update to state law required law enforcement officers to register the weapons with the Justice Department.
About 7,625 assault weapons have been registered with the DOJ over the last decade, with some officers buying more than one weapon. For the first 11 months of 2011, 844 officers bought 861 weapons, according to the DOJ figures.
Justice Department officials said it would be too burdensome to break down by department the purchases in prior years, especially since the records are not kept electronically. The registrations are kept in paper files as they come in.
The 2011 data showed that officers working in eight police departments on college campuses are among those who have legally obtained assault weapons.
Some campus officers said they want the firepower to respond to attacks, such as the 2007 killing spree at Virginia Tech, where 33 people died in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. This month, a gunman killed a university police officer at the campus.
"We want to definitely match the suspects," said Los Angeles School Police Department Lt. Chris Stevens, whose officers bought four assault rifles this year. They are supposed to only use them if needed on the job.
The state Department of Fish and Game is among several state agencies that allow officers to buy assault weapons and use them while off-duty.
"I don't know exactly what they're using them for," department spokesman Patrick Foy said. "What they're not using them for is patrol, I can tell you that."