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In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an Associated Press investigation found that at least 1,900 U.S. military firearms were lost or stolen in the 2010s, with some reappearing in violent crimes. And that is certainly a minority.
Government records of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force show that pistols, machine guns, shotguns, and automatic assault rifles have disappeared from armories, supply stores, Navy warships, and elsewhere. These weapons of war disappeared due to security deficiencies not previously publicly reported, including sleeping troops and an unrecorded surveillance system.
In one case, authorities linked an Army pistol stolen from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to four shootings in New York before it was recovered. Another stolen army pistol was used in a street robbery in Boston.
Theft or loss of weapons straddled the military’s global footprint. In Afghanistan, someone broke the padlock on an army container and stole 65 Beretta M9s – the same type of weapon found in New York. The theft in the war zone went undetected for weeks when empty pistol cases were discovered on the premises. The weapons were not recovered.
While AP focused on firearms, military explosives were also lost or stolen, including armor-piercing shells that landed in an Atlanta backyard. In this and many other incidents, military investigators closed the case without finding who was responsible.
The Pentagon used to provide Congress with annual updates on stolen weapons, but that requirement ended years ago and public accountability has waned. The Army and Air Force couldn’t easily tell AP how many weapons were lost or stolen from 2010 to 2019.
So the AP built its own database by reviewing records, including hundreds of military crime files and data from small arms registers, as well as internal military analysis. In its balance sheet, AP excluded cases where firearms were lost in combat, accidents such as plane crashes and similar incidents where the fate of a weapon was known.
Since the beginning of this reporting 10 years ago, the armed forces have been reluctant to share information. For years the army suppressed the publication of information. Unlike the other branches, the Air Force did not publish any data at all.
Military weapons are particularly vulnerable to corrupt insiders responsible for securing them. They know how to exploit weaknesses within the armories or the huge supply chains of the military. They often see an opportunity in the lower echelons of making money with a military who can afford it.
“It’s about the money, isn’t it?” said Brigg. Gen. Duane Miller, 2nd Army Police Officer.
Theft or loss is more common than the army has publicly admitted. During an initial interview, Miller clearly underestimated the extent of gun disappearances, citing records that only report a few hundred missing rifles and small arms. An internal analysis by the Army received by AP found 1,303 firearms.
In a second interview, Miller said he was unaware of the memos that had been distributed throughout the army until AP pointed out. Army officials later said the total is incomplete as it has some salvaged weapons and it may have some duplicates.
Like Miller, senior officials in the Marine and Defense Secretary’s office said that accountability for weapons is a high priority – and when the military knows that a weapon is missing, it triggers a concerted response to locate it. The officials also said the lack of weapons was not a common problem.
“We have a very large inventory of several million of these weapons,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in an interview. “We take this very seriously and think we’re doing a very good job. That doesn’t mean there are no losses. It doesn’t mean that no mistakes are made.”
The responsibility for weapons is part of the military routine. Gunsmiths should check the guns every day when they are opened. Sight counts, a visual sum of the available weapons, are practiced for troops whether they are in the field, on patrol or in the armory. But as long as there are armories, people steal from them.
In the absence of regular reporting, it is the responsibility of the Pentagon to notify Congress of all “significant” incidents of missing weapons. That hasn’t happened since at least 2017.
Stolen military weapons were sold to members of street gangs, seized from felons and used in violent crimes.
The AP identified eight cases where five different stolen military firearms were used in a civilian shootout or other violent crime, and others where felons were caught in possession of guns. Federal restrictions on public disclosure of firearms information mean the total number of cases is certainly too low.
The military requires itself to notify civil law enforcement agencies if a weapon goes missing, and the services assist with subsequent investigations. The Pentagon does not prosecute criminal weapons, and spokesman Kirby said his office is unaware of stolen firearms used in civil crimes.
The closest possible AP to an independent census was compiled by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services. In the 2010s, 22 U.S. military weapons were used in one crime. That sum could include surplus weapons that the military sells to the public or loans to civil law enforcement agencies.
These FBI records also appear to be an undercount. They say no military weapon was used in a crime in 2018, but the AP found that at least one weapon was used.
Back in June 2018, police in Albany, New York, were looking for a young man they’d placed in an April shootout involving the Beretta M9 stolen by the army. When authorities found him two months later, analysis of the shell cases would link the gun to two more shootings and a fourth in 2017.
The army still doesn’t know who stole the gun or when.
Hall reports from Nashville, Tennessee; LaPorta reported from Boca Raton, Florida; Pritchard reported from Los Angeles; Myers reported from Chicago. Also involved were Jeannie Ohm of Arlington, Virginia; Brian Barrett, Randy Herschaft, and Jennifer Farrar in New York; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; and Pia Deshpande in Chicago.