first published in 48 hills, July 21, 2017
Federal agent’s loaded gun, left unsecured in a car, killed Kate Steinle
So why is all the attention on an immigrant who was at the end of an unfortunate chain of events?
By Matt Gonzalez
Kate Steinle was killed two years ago in San Francisco after a gun stolen from a car was discharged on Pier 14, a popular tourist attraction. Homeless immigrant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate handled a discarded bundle that contained the firearm, resulting in the unintentional shooting. A single bullet ricocheted off the ground, travelling 100 feet before striking Steinle.
The SIG Sauer handgun, which a court found had been left loaded and unsecured in a backpack under the seat of a vehicle parked in downtown San Francisco, was stolen during an auto break-in. It belonged to a Bureau of Land Management employee.
Garcia Zarate is not charged with the theft and has no connection to it. But stolen guns travel quickly as they are stolen, traded, and stashed. A few days later Lopez Sanchez stumbled upon it and tragedy struck.
Auto burglaries happen approximately 25,000 times a year in San Francisco alone, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. That’s 70 a day, on average. Guns were stolen in 57 car break-ins in 2015, according to San Francisco police.
In leaving the gun unsecured, the BLM officer violated his own agency’s policies and recklessly endangered the lives of others. In fact, but for his negligent act, Kate Steinle would be alive today.
Section 17-6 of BLM’s safety manual states “All firearms, when not in active use, shall be stored in a secure place, out of sight, under lock and key. Firearms will be unloaded prior to storage.”
Had the officer done the same thing today, he’d be facing criminal charges. Senate Bill 869, approved by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2016, makes it a crime for any person, including law enforcement, to leave an unlocked gun in a car.
The law states that “a person shall, when leaving a handgun in an unattended vehicle, [lock the handgun in the vehicle’s trunk, lock the handgun in a locked container and place the container out of plain view, or lock the handgun in a locked container that is permanently affixed to the vehicle’s interior and not in plain view.].” (Penal Code sections 25612, 25140).
State Senator Jerry Hill, the sponsor of the law, said: “Law enforcement agencies have policies in place for officers not to leave their guns unsecured in vehicles, but they ignore it. We take that as a very serious violation of the public trust.”
The officer’s negligence is being ignored by right wing pundits because it complicates the anti-immigrant narrative they are pushing. But Federal Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero, in the civil case filed against the BLM by the Steinle family, concluded that the “BLM ranger had a duty to properly secure the handgun, that the ranger breached that duty by leaving the loaded gun in an unattended vehicle, that the failure to secure the handgun proximately caused Steinle’s death, and that [the Steinle family] suffered damages as a result.” (opinion dated 1/6/17).
Meanwhile, lawmakers have raised an important issue: Why do BLM officers even have guns at all? Their primary job is to manage public lands. Since when did they need to be outfitted with state-of-the-art weaponry?
Earlier this year, while he was still in office, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a measure that would eliminate the Bureau of Land Management’s law enforcement function, in effect, disarming them. If approved, H.R. 622 would make an accident, based on a stolen BLM firearm, impossible. Utah Congressman Chris Steward has since assumed first sponsorship of the bill.
The BLM is opposing efforts of Garcia Zarate’s defense team to compel their employee’s testimony at trial. Justice Department lawyers are opposing the subpoena on the officer’s behalf, which also calls on the agency to turn over records related to the history and maintenance of the gun.
It is the height of irony that President Trump, who used the case to promote his fledgling candidacy for the Republican nomination, now presides over a government that opposes allowing a jury to hear the facts from this critical witness. It’s no surprise they’d rather forego the trial and instead keep the focus on the immigrant who found the gun on the pier just before Steinle’s death.