The three plainclothes police officers scoured city neighborhoods for people committing traffic violations or minor offenses. But this basic police work was actually a strategy with a bigger goal: to get guns off the streets.

They pulled over drivers of Toyotas and Cadillacs for having windows that were too darkly tinted. They stopped another motorist who had an improperly displayed license plate. But so far on this recent night, they had found no weapons. Then, three hours into their shift, the officers got a gun when they stopped a driver who was not wearing his seat belt on Georgia Avenue NW.

It was another success for the three officers, who work in the street crimes unit of the District's 3rd Police District. The team of 15 officers has seized more than 80 firearms this year, helping push the department's total gun seizures past 1,000.

If police continue seizing guns at the current pace, they will recover more firearms than in any year since 2000. They are about to get help from a strike force led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is targeting gun violence and distribution.

Handguns are illegal in the District, and D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said seizing more firearms is one of his top priorities.

"We're getting more guns off the street, and that is a very good thing," Ramsey said. "It cuts down on the number of guns that are being used for violent acts. The more we can get off the street, the better off we are."

Although police said they are seizing a sizable number of guns, others question the department's effectiveness at removing them from the streets. The numbers -- D.C. police recovered 1,982 guns last year -- are down from those confiscated not so long ago. In 1996, police took in 2,950 guns. In the early 1990s, they seized 3,500 to 4,000 firearms a year.

Officials with the Fraternal Order of Police said the seizures dropped because Ramsey eliminated specialized gun squads after he took over the top job in 1998. "The chief hasn't taken this seriously," said Sgt. G.G. Neill, a union official and a former gun squad member.

Police officials countered that crime has decreased significantly since the early 1990s, resulting in fewer guns on the street. Ramsey said he wanted all of his officers, not just specialized units, to work at seizing guns.

"When I was an officer, there was nothing better than a gun pinch," Ramsey said. "Everybody's job is to get guns off the street."

In the 3rd District, the work often falls upon the street crimes unit, which usually does not respond to 911 calls and can devote more time to the effort. A bulletin board in the squad room highlights some of the unit's achievements with photographs of dozens of guns and suspects.

The unit's gun seizures mirror those in the rest of the city, where more than 75 percent of recovered firearms are handguns and most of those are semiautomatic pistols, according to police statistics. Most firearms sneak into the District from Maryland and Virginia, police said.

Citywide, police have seized five assault rifles, 568 pistols, 224 revolvers and an assortment of other firearms this year. One of the most shocking catches came Feb. 3, when police from the 7th District stopped a 14-year-old driving a car in Southeast Washington and turned up a submachine gun and semiautomatic handgun.

Despite a steady flow of illegal weapons from neighboring states, seizing firearms in Washington isn't easy and requires dozens of car stops and arrests for minor infractions, police officers said.

On the recent evening shift, officers Wayne David, Chris Petz and Miguel Correa piled into a marked squad car and roamed around their district, which includes Dupont Circle, Shaw and other areas.

"Little things lead to the big things," Petz said as the officers began their shift and drove away from the station. "A beer or car stop can lead to guns or drugs."

A few minutes after leaving the station, they spotted a Cadillac with windows that appeared to be too darkly tinted, so they pulled over the driver. In the District, car windows are required to allow a certain percentage of light through them, and some officers carry meters to determine whether a violation has occurred.

As they approached the Cadillac, the officers smelled marijuana wafting from the windows. But a search turned up nothing illegal, so they let the driver and passenger go with a warning to have the tint reduced.

For three hours, they continued to pull over motorists without making a catch -- until the officers noticed a Nissan on Georgia Avenue with a driver who was not wearing a seat belt.

After stopping the driver, Correa smelled marijuana in the car and ordered the passenger onto the sidewalk. The man consented to a search. As Correa pulled a bandana out of the man's pocket, a small bag of what appeared to be marijuana fell to the street.

When Correa moved to handcuff the passenger, the man bolted, sprinting down the sidewalk. Officers tackled him.

As they led the passenger back to the car, David searched the Nissan and suddenly screamed the code word for gun. He told his colleagues he had spotted a pistol in the open pocket of a backpack.

The weapon was a .380 semiautomatic pistol that had a bullet in the chamber and seven others in the magazine. The 23-year-old passenger said the gun was his. The driver, a friend of his, knew nothing about it, the suspect told the officers.

Police let the driver go with a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. They arrested the passenger, charging him with carrying a pistol without a license and drug possession.

"You see," Petz said, "the small things lead you to the big things."

As they drove back to the district station with the gun in tow, the officers seemed almost giddy.

"This feels good," David said, smiling. "It feels good to get a weapon off the street."

D.C. police officer Wayne David inspects other contents of a car after discovering a .380 semiautomatic pistol in the bag of a passenger.This pistol is one of more than 1,000 guns seized in the District this year.