Westminster police battle influx of guns


As guns have become increasingly prevalent nationally and across Orange County, the Westminster Police Department has been turning up more and more gun-toting criminals and removing their weapons from circulation.

Between 2021 and 2022, Westminster police took 64 guns off the streets, a dramatic 278 percent increase from the 2021 total of 26. Meanwhile, the number of unserialized homemade ghost guns doubled from 13 to 26.

Commander Scott Gump says, although the Westminster police haven’t targeted gun seizures per se, the uptick in the town of 90,000 is noteworthy.

Westminster is not alone. Through the pandemic, Americans and gun producers went on an unparalleled gun buying and manufacturing spree. Combined with the growing popularity and affordability of untraceable ghost guns, the streets are flooded with cheap and available firearms and police have been hard-pressed to keep up with those who possess the guns.

A weapon recovered by the Westminster Police Department. Photo provided by the Westminster Police Department

Although California has been in the forefront of a number of gun safety reforms, ranging from assault weapons restrictions to stronger background check requirements, the efforts have done little to stanch the flow of arms. The state has also been unable to close loopholes that allow unregulated production of gun parts that are easily assembled.

Meanwhile, the state’s government and voter-adopted criminal reform measures, such as Propositions 47, 57, and AB 109, have reduced punishments for crimes, including felonies.

The result, according to law enforcement officials, has been revolving doors at jails and a flow of criminals onto the streets with less fear of long sentences or prison time. The availability of firepower and the lack of consequences have led to an inevitable situation, police say.

“The severity (of sentences) is not enough to deter them,” Gump said of criminals acquiring guns. “There are so many criminals out there on the streets that shouldn’t be.”

Detective Henry Tran, who works in special investigations and narcotics, says the problem can only be partially solved by policing.

“We do our part to combat gun possession and violence with hopes that once we make the arrests, the criminals serve longer sentences and it prevents future crime,” he said.

Awash in guns

Even crooks committing petty crimes are often carrying heat and engaging in outlandish behavior, according to Westminster Officer Matheus Dos Santos.

In April, Dos Santos pursued a pair of suspected catalytic converter thieves. The pursuit was halted after reaching 100 miles per hour before the car was abandoned in Garden Grove. Officers traced the chase route and found two allegedly discarded handguns, including a 9 millimeter ghost gun.

In June, Westminster police stopped a probationer with a Glock-style semi-automatic handgun in his waistband. The suspect was a convicted felon in possession of a firearm who had been previously arrested on the same charge, and he was a suspect in an attempted murder.

Another suspect in a successful homicide was found to be in possession of a .45-caliber ghost gun during a vehicle search.

In another instance, police in a foot chase pursued suspects into a garage where a loaded Glock-style semi-automatic handgun was located. The garage’s occupant was a documented gang member with prior convictions for possession of firearms.

Thankfully, none of these confrontations turned violent or deadly.

In the second half of 2022, Westminster also recovered a ghost rifle and at least one high capacity magazine. Dos Santos said on several occasions he has found suspects with all the parts for illegal guns that just haven’t been assembled yet.

A weapon recovered by the Westminster Police Department. Photo provided by the Westminster Police Department

Gambling and guns

In Westminster, police have been cracking down on “slap houses,” or illegal video gambling sites, which has led to confiscation of a number of guns and drugs.

“Those attract gangsters and criminal activities,” Tran said of the notorious gambling dens. “Usually every one of them has a guard and they are armed with ghost guns.”

Tran said the unlicensed firearms that were once an anomaly are becoming a gun of choice.

“They’re popping up everywhere,” Tran said. “Every time we hit a slaphouse, we find one.”

With a 3D printer and legally available and unserialized parts and kits, guns can be easily and cheaply built or assembled at home. They are generally sold without permits or background checks.

“(Criminals) are in possession of more (guns) than we’ve ever had without being in the system,” Tran said. “It will be an ongoing problem.”

Dos Santos says he gets a special satisfaction whenever he pulls a gun, particularly a ghost gun, off the streets.

“The guys with ghost guns have nothing to lose,” Dos Santos said. “It shows they’re desperate.”

In his first year on night patrol, Dos Santos says he seized about five guns, not to mention a number of parts to assemble guns. Dos Santos says, “It’s the best feeling ever” when a search results in finding and eliminating guns.

“No matter how many guns you have taken,” he said, “it’s so rewarding. I am kind of disappointed it wasn’t more.”

A weapon recovered by the Westminster Police Department. Photo provided by the Westminster Police Department

A national trend

Across the country, cities from New York to Los Angeles have been finding firearms caches through directed efforts, sweeps and even gun buybacks.

California state and regional law enforcement seized more than 100 guns from people legally barred from owning them during a five-day sweep that spanned 51 cities in the greater Los Angeles area in February, officials announced. In Philadelphia, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seized more than 400 firearms in breaking up a gun-trafficking ring. In New York, as part of an Interstate Task Force on Illegal Guns, more than 6,000 guns were seized, including more than 4,700 in New York City alone.

Even the Transportation Security Administration has seen a marked increase, confiscating more than 6,300 firearms from airport passengers in 2022 – the highest number recorded since the agency’s inception.

In nearby Santa Ana, removing guns has been a particular focus with everything from directed enforcement and sweep to gun buybacks. In 2022, the police seized 432 guns. More than 113 were ghost guns, with analysis of guns seized after September still to be completed.

Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin told Behind the Badge, “I truly believe that for every gun we remove or seize, you’re potentially saving a life.”