In the first such public account in decades, an Associated Press investigation found that at least 1,900 U.S. military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in crimes violent. And it is definitely an undercoverage.
Government records covering the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force show that pistols, machine guns, shotguns and automatic assault rifles have disappeared from armories, warehouses in supply, naval warships and elsewhere. These weapons of war have disappeared due to security failures that so far have not been 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 City before it was recovered. Another stolen army pistol was used in a street robbery in Boston.
The theft or loss of weapons has covered the military’s global footprint. In Afghanistan, someone cut the lock of an army container and stole 65 Beretta M9s, the same type of weapon recovered in New York. The theft in the war zone went undetected for weeks, when empty pistol boxes were discovered inside the compound. The weapons were not recovered.
While AP focused on guns, military explosives were also lost or stolen, including armor-piercing grenades that ended up in an Atlanta backyard. In this incident and many others, military investigators closed the case without finding the person responsible.
The Pentagon used to share annual updates on stolen weapons with Congress, but that requirement ended years ago and public accountability slipped. The military and air force could not easily tell AP how many weapons were lost or stolen from 2010 to 2019.
The PA therefore built its own database by examining files, including hundreds of military criminal files and data from small arms registers, as well as internal military analysis. In its accounting, where possible, AP has eliminated cases of loss of firearms in combat, accidents such as plane crashes and similar incidents where the fate of a weapon was known.
Since this report began 10 years ago, the armed forces have been reluctant to share information. For years, the military suppressed information disclosure. Unlike other branches, the Air Force has not released any data.
Military weapons are particularly vulnerable to corrupt insiders tasked with securing them. They know how to exploit weak spots in armories or huge army supply chains. Often from the lower ranks, they can see a chance to make money with an army that can afford it.
“It’s about the money, isn’t it?” Said the sergeant. General Duane Miller, Army Police Officer No.2.
Theft or loss occurs more often than the military has publicly acknowledged. In an initial interview, Miller dramatically underestimated the extent to which guns go missing, citing records that only show a few hundred rifles and handguns missing. An internal army analysis that AP obtained identified 1,303 firearms.
In a second interview, Miller said he was unaware of the memos, which had been distributed throughout the military, until AP reported them. Army officials later said the total is imperfect as it includes salvaged weapons and may include duplicates.
Like Miller, senior officials in the Marines and the Secretary of Defense’s office have said gun accountability is a high priority – and when the military knows a gun is missing, it triggers a concerted response to recover it. Officials also said missing weapons are not a widespread 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 we think we are doing a very good job. This does not mean that there are no losses. This does not mean that there are no mistakes made.
Responsibility for weapons is part of the military routine. Gunsmiths are expected to check guns when they are opened each day. Sight counts, a visual total of weapons in hand, are applied to troops, whether in the field, on patrol, or in the weapon room. But ever since there have been armories, people have been stealing them.
In the absence of a regular reporting obligation, the Pentagon is responsible for informing Congress of any “significant” incident of missing weapons. This hasn’t happened since at least 2017.
Stolen military weapons have been sold to members of street gangs, recovered from criminals and used in violent crimes.
The PA has identified eight cases in which five different stolen military firearms were used in a civilian shootout or other violent crimes, and others in which criminals were found in possession of weapons. Federal restrictions on public sharing of firearms information mean the total number of cases is certainly an undercount.
The military obliges itself to notify civilian law enforcement when a firearm goes missing, and the services assist in subsequent investigations. The Pentagon does not track criminal firearms, and spokesperson Kirby said his office was not aware of any stolen firearms used in civilian crimes.
The nearest AP could find an independent count was done by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services. He said 22 firearms issued by the US military were used in a crime during the 2010s. This total could include surplus guns the military sells to the public or loans to civilian law enforcement. .
These FBI files also appear to be an undercount. They say no military firearms were used in a crime in 2018, but the PA found at least one to be.
In June 2018, police in Albany, New York, searched for a young man they placed in an April shooting involving the stolen Beretta M9 from the military. When the authorities found it two months later, the analysis of the casings would have linked the weapon to two other shots, plus a fourth in 2017.
The military still does not know who stole the weapon, or when.
Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee; LaPorta reported from Boca Raton, Florida; Pritchard reported from Los Angeles; Myers reported from Chicago. Jeannie Ohm in Arlington, Virginia, also contributed; Brian Barrett, Randy Herschaft and Jennifer Farrar in New York; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; and Pia Deshpande in Chicago.
Contact Hall at https://twitter.com/kmhall; contact LaPorta at https://twitter.com/jimlaporta; contact Pritchard at https://twitter.com/JPritchardAP; contact Myers at https://twitter.com/myersjustinc.
Email the AP Global Investigation Team at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/tips/. See other work at https://apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.