updated 6/1/2012 2:05:58 PM ET 2012-06-01T18:05:58

Federal prosecutors announced charges Friday against two Sacramento County sheriff's deputies accused of illegally selling dozens of weapons, some of which authorities say fell into the hands of criminals.

Deputies Ryan McGowan, 31, and Thomas Lu, 42, both of Elk Grove face charges of trafficking in handguns that cannot be legally bought by citizens in California, including some exotic weapons such as high-powered rifles mounted on pistol frames.

Also charged were firearms dealer Robert Snellings, 61, of Rancho Murieta and Ulysses Simpson Grant Early IV, 36, who is accused of buying guns. Both are from Sacramento.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagoner said the deputies were charged with serving as straw buyers by purchasing the restricted handguns. They then sold the handguns at a profit to unqualified buyers through licensed dealers, prosecutors said.

California law bars citizens from buying handguns that have not been deemed safe by the state Department of Justice, but the law exempts peace officers. The deputies are accused of using their peace officer exemption to buy dozens of weapons over more than a year then selling them to others for a profit.

Investigators said at least two weapons eventually reached criminals, though there is no evidence the deputies had that intent.

The names of the two deputies who were charged were not immediately available.

Two other police officers, one in Sacramento and the other in nearby Roseville, were implicated in the investigation but have not been charged. Both have since lost their jobs.

The two deputies worked at the department's Rio Consumes Correction Center in Elk Grove. One deputy resigned and the other is on administrative leave, said Deputy Jason Ramos, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, assisted by deputies and police within the local departments, spent months investigating the alleged weapons dealing. The investigation became known when agents served search warrants in November.

The weapons include easily concealable semiautomatic pistols that shoot high-velocity .223 caliber bullets, the same long-range ammunition used by the U.S. military for its M16 and M4 rifles.

Also sold were handguns that fire .50 caliber pistol bullets, a less powerful version of the same large-caliber round used in machine guns and sniper rifles. Investigators say semiautomatic handguns built to look like Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns were also bought and sold.

The state Department of Justice also restricts sales of other models of handguns with features that may have advantages for law enforcement but aren't considered safe for the general public. For instance, the department's standards require that semiautomatics can't be fired if the magazine is removed, to prevent the accidental firing of a bullet left in the chamber. They also require a visible indicator if a round is in the chamber ready to be fired.

The federal investigation led Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, to propose legislation to close what he calls a loophole in the state's "unsafe handguns" law, passed in 2001.

Peace officers and members of the military are required to use a registered firearms dealer if they want to sell their privately owned weapons. But current law does not require the dealer to make sure the ultimate buyer is also eligible to own handguns that aren't on the Department of Justice's list of approved weapons.

Dickinson said his AB2460 would require dealers to check whether weapons are considered "unsafe handguns," and sell them only to other law enforcement officials or members of the military who are exempted under the law. The bill passed the Assembly in May and is awaiting action in the Senate.

The guns uncovered in the federal investigation were sold with magazines that contain no more than 10 bullets, the maximum allowed in California, but could easily be fitted with magazines containing 30 rounds or more. Several types of the weapons could also be readily altered with barrels and stocks that would violate California restrictions on assault weapons or short-barreled rifles.

But as sold, none of the weapons involved in the federal investigation met the legal definition of assault weapons of the sort that also are banned for civilians but available to law enforcement officials with departmental approval. The Associated Press reported in December that California law enforcement agencies registered more than 7,600 assault rifles for individual officers, many for the officers' personal use, since their ownership was restricted a decade ago.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Pushing a new effort to limit gun ownership

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    >>> and michael sis cough, we were just mentioninging is nbc's investigative correspondent. michael recent first of all, you've also been covering this story and vin new details.

    >> right, as you mentioned before, andrea, three members of the counter assault twreem involved in this incident. and that's significant because they're full-fledged secret service agents. . that's not just uniform conviction. they're an elite squad part of any presidential motorcade . these are heavily armed special agencies whose job it is to according to the secret service website neutralize any potential attack on a protectee with overwhelming force. and you see them just a few cars back, part of any presidential motorcade . what makes this really serious is all of these agents and supervisors would have had access to the president's schedule, in fact, i'm told by a source that the schedule was distributed to all of them. they were in the hotel, that schedule. the nonpublic schedule was in the hotel room of every one of them who brought back these prostitutes to their rooms. so there's numerous potential security breaches here why some people are saying this is far more serious than anything we've seen any can dal we've seen in the secret service before.

    >> and we should point out, you were covering the nra convention, as well. and just got back from that. the brady campaign today is touring capitol hill calling for lawmakers to sign a pledge to promise to try to keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons, terrorists and the mentally ill . you were at the convention and saw all the republicans led by mitt romney sort of paying their homage to the nra and that powerful group. are we going to see guns again as a wedge issue in this campaign?

    >> the nra was really flexing its muscle in st. louis at its annual convention there as you mentioned, wasn't just mitt romney although he was the star attraction given that he's the presumptive nominee. you had newt gingrich , rick santorum , senator blount from missouri, a whole lineup house majority leader kantor, a whole lineup of top republicans there and one thing i was told there is that the nra is planning to spend as much as $40 million on this election to defeat barack obama . that's a record amount. they've got -- get out the vote efforts. second term is critical. their view is that obama has been laying low on gun control during his first term for political reasons but their argument is give him a second term and he's going to go to stop it.

    >> of course, the gun control advocates also complain that the president hasn't been strong enough because he permits -- he's now permitting people to carry weapons in national parks which had not been permitted before. thank you so much, mike.


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