Santa Ana police and federal agents are teaming up to track guns used by criminals and to disrupt the illicit networks that supply weapons in the city and beyond.
Using a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Santa Ana police will take the lead in tracing guns linked to gang members and drug dealers. On Monday, the City Council unanimously approved the program, which is expected to be in place by the first of the year.
"We didn't just come up with this because we saw this money was available. This fits into what we have been doing, a commitment we've had to track down every single weapon we get hold of," said Santa Ana Police Capt. Dan McCoy, who will supervise the operation.
The 18-month program will dedicate two Santa Ana officers and two federal agents to tracking illegal guns back to their source and also to stepping up review of about 100 federally licensed gun dealers in the city.
Tracking and blocking the flow of guns into Orange County's most populous city will create benefits that go well beyond its borders, officials said.
"Firearms traffickers do not recognize political boundaries," a report from Police Chief Paul M. Walters said.
Twenty agencies nationwide applied for the federal money to create the firearms program, and only two others, New Orleans police and the Illinois state police, were selected.
Agencies in Orange County already have been involved in tracking the gun trade. McCoy cited the high-profile arrest of federally licensed gun dealer James Larry Simmons, who was sentenced last month to 1 1/2 years in prison in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana.
Guns sold by Simmons were connected to more than 30 crimes in Southern California, including three homicides, court records show.
"Our goal with this program, plain and simple, is to stem the tide of illegal guns reaching young people in our city and make an impact on violent crime," McCoy said.
One provision of the Firearms Trafficking Program--to inspect federally licensed gun dealers in Santa Ana--drew criticism Tuesday from some gun store owners.
"They make a lot about that fact that you can walk in and buy a gun," said Bob Hassel, a sales assistant at Cliff's Gunsmithing in Santa Ana. "But criminals don't do that. They heist 'em. They steal 'em."
The Gun Owners of California lobbying organization also complained about the plan to review gun dealers.
"We're appalled," said spokeswoman Carolyn Herbertson. "I don't know of any other federal bureau that is coming down so hard on business people."
There are an estimated 100 federal firearms licensees in Santa Ana, but only about one-fourth are storefront businesses. The others include individuals who might sell only a handful of guns from their homes to friends and others, said Larry Axnick of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The new weapons team will train with ATF agents and work closely with the Orange County district attorney's office and the state parole office.
The team will review gun-related crimes and track the routes of guns reaching the streets of Santa Ana. The grant will pay for computers to help investigators track cases, while state and federal databases will help the team forge valuable links between guns and the crimes in which they were used.
The $350,000 grant will pay for personnel costs, computer equipment and field gear such as radios and surveillance equipment.
While gun dealers already are subject to periodic review by federal firearms investigators, Ismael D. Cabrera, the agent in charge of the ATF's Santa Ana office, said federal agents often are overwhelmed and unable to process permits in a timely manner.
ATF officials also acknowledge that licensed gun dealers rarely are the source of criminal gun trafficking. But in some cases, dealers have been accused of listing nonexistent people on sales slips to sell guns to convicted felons or to ship them overseas.
Cabrera said a single rogue dealer can distribute a large number of illicit guns.
"You can stop one person from diverting guns," Cabrera said, "and that person can be responsible for 1,800 guns."