Three of California’s major cities are moving to impose new restrictions on firearms purchases by police. The strategy is aimed at preventing millions of taxpayer dollars from going to gun dealers who have broken the law and could be fueling the black market for firearms. 

The measures being considered by San Diego, Oakland, and San Francisco aim to stop local enforcement agencies from buying guns or ammunition from dealers who were cited for serious legal violations during inspections. Leaders of those cities say they hope the moves will encourage better practices across the gun industry by setting higher standards for dealers competing for lucrative city contracts.

“It sends a very bad message if we’re purchasing firearms from stores that are doing business irresponsibly,” San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott told The Trace. “These are taxpayer dollars — they should be going to businesses that are committed to keeping our communities safe.”

It is common for police departments in California to contract with local gun dealers to furnish firearms and ammunition. Which gun dealer a department selects is based on factors like price and supply. A dealer’s violation history does not typically factor into the decision. 

According to a report from the gun violence prevention organization Brady, between 2015 and 2021, California law enforcement agencies spent more than $20 million at two gun stores with histories of violating federal firearms laws. Inspection records show that one of those stores, LC Action Police Supply LTD, racked up more than 14 violations over that six-year period, including repeatedly failing to notify federal authorities about customers who purchased multiple guns over a short period — a sign of possible trafficking. 

The Oakland Police Department still has a $1 million contract with LC Action, which is based in San Jose. The San Francisco Adult Probation Department, which has armed officers, dropped the store as a vendor in response to Brady’s research, vowing to do business only with dealers that “adhere to best practices,” according to records obtained by The Trace. The San Francisco Police Department did not disclose the names of its gun suppliers, but told city officials said in March that three of its vendors over the past five years had violated firearm laws. The department said that, although checks and balances were already built into its procurement process , it was “interested in reviewing the potential addition of guardrails.” 

LC Action and the Oakland and San Diego police departments did not respond to requests for comment.

The ordinances proposed in San Diego and Oakland — which Brady helped draft — could exclude stores like LC Action from police contracts, at least until violations are resolved. Each measure lays out requirements that firearm retailers must meet to supply guns to the city, with the intention of excluding gun stores that have repeatedly violated state, local, or federal gun regulations. Firearm vendors doing city business would have to implement policies to prevent gun theft and unlawful sales. The cities could terminate contracts if vendors failed to comply. 

Oakland’s City Council has referred its legislation for a final vote, which is scheduled to take place on December 5 and could affect the city’s contract with LC Action. That contract sunsets in 2025. A representative for San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani said that her office was working to draft a similar ordinance and would introduce it before the end of 2024.

In October, San Diego’s Public Safety Committee instructed the city attorney to begin exploring how the new procurement policy could be implemented. Councilmembers are expected to vote on the measure after that research is complete. “I’m hopeful the measure will pass smoothly,” said City Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, who authored the San Diego bill. She noted that the City Council, which is made up entirely of Democrats, has voted in favor of other gun violence prevention bills, including a 2019 ghost gun ban that she introduced.

While restricting government business with gun dealers is new in California, it has precedent in New Jersey, where the state government purchases all of the weapons used by state and local law enforcement. In 2019, Governor Phil Murphy issued an executive order that requires gun dealers with state contracts to certify their compliance with firearms laws and their adherence to certain safety practices. 

In California, Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb said cities are seeking to replicate New Jersey’s strategy of leveraging state contracts to influence gun dealer practices. “If enough local jurisdictions pass a law like this, it creates a deterrent for those companies that engage in this kind of questionable behavior,” Kalb said. “Either they’ll stop engaging in that behavior because they won’t get business, or they’ll go out of business because they’ll no longer be eligible for [these contracts] at all.”

Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb speaks during a committee meeting at City Hall in April 2023. Jeff Chiu/AP File

It’s unclear how the new measures would be enforced. As The Trace has reported, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is responsible for inspecting gun dealers nationwide, but the agency lacks the resources to conduct inspections on a regular basis. Some dealers go years or even more than a decade without an inspection. This makes it unlikely that many of the potential suppliers of police weapons in California have up-to-date inspection documents to prove their compliance.

Elliott, San Diego’s city attorney, said her office is exploring whether to impose certification mandates similar to New Jersey’s. Another option would be to designate local investigators to conduct their own compliance checks at gun stores. Elliott said San Diego deploys similar inspection units to investigate tobacco shops’ compliance with a statewide ban on selling flavored tobacco products. 

To determine whether potential gun vendors are operating responsibly, leaders in all three cities are also considering using publicly available data on the origins of guns recovered by law enforcement at crime scenes. In June, the California Department of Justice published a report detailing which gun stores in the state sold a disproportionate number of recovered crime guns — a common indicator of unsafe business practices. 

“Taxpayer dollars should not fund the gun violence epidemic,” Stefani, the San Francisco supervisor, said in an emailed statement. “We should put our money where our mouth is to crack down on illegal guns, promote government accountability, and make our neighborhoods safer.”