The Los Angeles Police Department has announced that a cache of 21 MP-5 submachine guns and 12 large-caliber handguns was stolen from a SWAT training facility late Wednesday or early Thursday of last week. So far, the LAPD has few leads on the theft.

Because a SWAT training was scheduled for Thursday, the weapons were moved Wednesday night from their usual secure storage location to a training facility in an old textile factory downtown, which the department uses to set up realistic training scenarios for SWAT team members. However, the facility did not have an alarm system or surveillance cameras, and the thieves were apparently able to enter by cutting through bolt locks and forcing their way through a metal wall gate. The guns were stored in a locked box, but that apparently did not deter the thieves.

When a police officer arrived at the training facility Thursday morning, the locks were broken, the weapons were gone, and some electrical equipment was stacked near a back door as if waiting to be loaded.

Under department policy, guns are not supposed to be left unattended at the training facility, and some officers privately questioned why they hadn’t been stored at SWAT headquarters, a secure building just a mile from the facility. The burglary has also prompted officials to reevaluate security at the training center.

“I guess ‘secure’ is all relative now,” said an LAPD deputy chief, speaking for the department. “It’s embarrassing…. It’s a lesson learned.”

Shortly after discovering the break-in, LAPD detectives and forensic techs were called in, but the seriousness of the situation led senior LAPD officials to bring in investigators with special expertise in gun thefts. In addition, fear that the high-powered guns could make their way onto the black market prompted officials to notify other law enforcement agencies across the region.

“This is a big deal,” said a deputy chief. “We’re concerned. We want to recover them.”

While the weapons had been altered by SWAT so they can only fire blanks, gun experts say that it takes about 5 minutes and a kit to convert them back to lethal use.

Were the gun thefts an inside job? Part of a terrorist plot?

The SWAT training facility isn’t a secret, which raises the possibility that thieves may have had surveillance on the site that let them know the guns had been brought in. In fact, a woman was caught photographing the building about a month ago, which triggered a counter-terrorism inquiry, although nothing came of it.

Others have asked whether the burglary might have been an inside job, since the weapons were only on site for a short period of time before being stolen. The department says it is not ruling out any possibilities at this point.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Submachine guns, handguns stolen from LAPD SWAT-training site,” Joel Rubin, Oct. 17, 2011