In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an Associated Press investigation has found that at least 1,900 U.S. military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in violent crimes.
The armed services and the Pentagon are not eager for the public to know the full extent of those losses — one reason AP’s investigation took a decade to complete. Military officials say that missing firearms are a tiny fraction of their total stockpile of several million guns, and note that some weapons are recovered.
A few key takeaways from AP’s investigation:
Stolen military guns don’t just vanish. Some have been sold to street gang members, recovered on felons and used in crimes.
The AP identified eight instances in which five different stolen military firearms were used in a civilian shooting or other violent crime from 2010 through 2019. In other incidents, felons were busted possessing military pistols or assault rifles.
In one case, New York state investigators linked an Army service pistol to four separate shootings, including one in which a person was hit in the ankle. The Army didn’t even know the gun was missing from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for two years — until police in New York’s capital recovered it in 2018.
Weapons accountability is drilled into troops whether they are in the field, on patrol or in the armory. A missing weapon often triggers a concerted response to recover it.
Still, problems persist. The AP found security lapses including unlocked doors, troops sleeping on the job, a malfunctioning surveillance camera system, shoddy record keeping and break-ins that, until now, have not been publicly reported.
In some cases, corrupt armorers with access to guns and firearm parts take advantage of the military’s enormous supply chains.
PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY SLIPS
The Pentagon used to share annual updates about stolen weapons with Congress, but the requirement to do so ended years ago and public accountability has slipped.
In the absence of a regular reporting requirement, the Pentagon is responsible for informing Congress of any “significant” incidents of missing weapons. That hasn’t happened since at least 2017.
While a missing portable missile such as a Stinger would result in a notification to lawmakers, a stolen machine gun would not, according to a senior Department of Defense official whom the Pentagon provided for an interview on condition the official not be named.
Starting in 1989, Congress required the Pentagon to submit annual reports on inventory losses. Although the problem of weapons loss and theft hasn’t stopped, regular reports to Congress did, apparently in the 1990s.
Because some armed services have suppressed the release of basic information, AP’s total is a certain undercount.
For one, firearms theft or loss happens significantly more than the Army publicly acknowledged.
In an interview, an Army brigadier general cited records that report only a few hundred missing rifles and handguns during the 2010s. The AP obtained internal Army memos detailing 1,303 missing rifles and handguns between 2013 and 2019. Theft was the primary reason.
While Army officials released contradictory information, the Air Force refused to release any data on losses or thefts.
Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Contact her at https://twitter.com/kmhall.
Email AP’s Global Investigations Team at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/tips/. See other work at https://apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.