Feb. 18, 2010 -- Guns meant to help safeguard America found their way into the hands of known criminals after absent-minded federal officers left firearms unsecured everywhere from fast-food restaurants to bowling alleys, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security.
Nearly 300 guns were misplaced by or stolen from federal officials between fiscal years 2006 and 2008, some of which were never reported lost, the report concluded. Some of the guns were recovered later by local law enforcement from suspected gang members after they had been engraved with gang signs.
"The Department of Homeland Security, through its components, did not adequately safeguard and control its firearms," according to the January report, which looked at seven of the department's agencies.
Firearms were left unattended in an idle vehicle in a parking lot, the restroom of a fast-food restaurant, a clothing store, a lunch box and a bowling alley, the report said.
One gun was locked in the trunk of an officer's car along with body armor and radio equipment, but the key to the trunk was left next to the vehicle's windshield wipers.
Another gun was left on the bumper of a car and fell off when the officer drove away.
Expert: Guns Become Like Keys, Wallet to Officers
Despite such anecdotal examples of negligence, the number of lost guns is not surprising to former FBI agent and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett.
"People who are true to their job, who are serious about their job have their guns with them all the time," said Garrett, who carried a handgun for the Bureau for more than 20 years. "It shouldn't happen, but for many people it sort of becomes like carrying their wallet. Do people lose their wallet? Sure they do.
"People put them down and then an hour later they go, 'Oh, my.'"
Garrett also said many thieves target official vehicles specifically because they could contain guns, which could explain why some of the guns were later recovered from suspected gang members and drug smugglers.
During his time with the FBI, Garrett said, agent reports of missing or stolen guns happened "with some regularity." He, however, says he never lost his gun.
Two Agencies Singled Out for Most Lost Firearms
The report was the result of an audit by the DHS's inspector general that reviewed firearm policies of seven agencies, from the Secret Service to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There is no department-wide firearms policy and the DHS relies on each agency to manage its firearms. After the audit, the report recommended that the policy be changed.
"DHS is strongly committed to ensuring that weapons utilized in support of its law enforcement mission are kept secure," DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said. "We took immediate action to correct the deficiencies identified in this audit and to improve our overall management of firearms."
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were singled out in the report for being responsible for losing 243 of the 289 missing firearms; Only 36 of which were determined to have been lost "due to circumstances beyond the control of the officers."
Border Protection is "one of the Department of Homeland Security's largest and most complex components," according to the department Web site. The agency has by far the most firearms of those audited, topping 88,000.
Representatives for the two agencies did not immediately return ABC News' calls for comment on the report. But both agencies said they are "developing and implementing" changes to "correct deficiencies," including transitioning to a Web-based firearms accountability system and a monthly review process, according to the DHS report.