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U.S. military guns keep vanishing

Some weapons find their way to street gang members, felons by The Associated Press | June 16, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.
In this July 13, 2017 photo released by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command on Feb. 9, 2021, a storage container of explosive ordnance shows signs of theft after arriving at the Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pa. An ammunition canister containing 32 rounds of 40mm M430A1 grenades, property of the U.S. Marine Corps, was missing. (U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command via AP)

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.

Government records covering the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force show pistols, machine guns, shotguns and automatic assault rifles have vanished from armories, supply warehouses, Navy warships and elsewhere. These weapons of war disappeared because of security problems that had not been publicly reported, including sleeping troops and a surveillance system that didn't record.

In one case, authorities linked an Army pistol stolen from Fort Bragg, N.C., to four shootings in New York before it was recovered. Another stolen Army pistol was used in a Boston robbery.

Weapon theft or loss spanned the military's global footprint. In Afghanistan, someone cut the padlock on an Army container and stole 65 Beretta M9s -- the same type of gun recovered in New York. The war-zone theft went undetected for weeks, until empty pistol boxes were discovered in the compound. The weapons were not recovered.

While AP's focus was on firearms, military explosives also have been lost or stolen, including armor-piercing grenades that ended up in an Atlanta backyard. In that incident and many others, military investigators closed the cases without finding the people responsible.

The Pentagon used to share with Congress annual updates about stolen weapons, but that requirement ended years ago. The Army and the Air Force couldn't readily tell the AP how many weapons were lost or stolen from 2010 through 2019.

On Tuesday, in the wake of the AP investigation, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that she would be open to new oversight over weapons accountability.

The AP built its own database by reviewing records including hundreds of military criminal case files and data from registries of small arms, as well as internal military analysis. Whenever possible, the AP eliminated cases in which firearms were lost in combat, during accidents such as aircraft crashes and in similar incidents in which a weapon's fate was known.

From the start of this reporting 10 years ago, the armed services have been slow to share information. For years, the Army suppressed the release of information. Unlike the other branches, the Air Force has released no data.

Theft or loss happens more often than the Army has publicly acknowledged. During an initial interview, Brig. Gen. Duane Miller, the Army's No. 2 law enforcement official, significantly understated the extent to which weapons disappear, citing records that report only a few hundred missing rifles and handguns. An internal Army analysis that the AP obtained tallied 1,303 firearms.

In a second interview, Miller said he hadn't been aware of the memos, which had been distributed throughout the Army, until the AP pointed them out. Army officials later said the total is imprecise because it includes some recovered guns and may include duplicates.

Like Miller, top officials with the Marines and the secretary of defense's office said weapon accountability is a high priority -- and when the military knows a weapon is missing, it does trigger a concerted response to recover it.

"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 do a very good job. That doesn't mean that there aren't losses. It doesn't mean that there aren't mistakes made."

Weapons accountability is part of military routine. Armorers are supposed to check weapons when they open each day. Sight counts, a visual total of weapons on hand, are drilled into troops whether they are in the field, on patrol or in the arms room. But as long as there have been armories, people have been stealing from them.

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.

Stolen military guns have been sold to street gang members, recovered on felons and used in violent crimes.

The AP identified eight instances in which five stolen military firearms were used in a civilian shooting or other violent crime, and others in which felons were caught possessing weapons. Federal restrictions on sharing firearms information publicly mean the case total is certainly an undercount.

The military requires itself to inform civilian law enforcement agencies when a gun is unaccounted for, and the services help in investigations. The Pentagon does not track guns used in crimes.

The closest the AP could find to an independent tally was done by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services. It said 22 guns issued by the U.S. military were used in felony crimes during the 2010s. That total could include surplus weapons the military sells to the public or lends to civilian law enforcement agencies.

Those FBI records also appear to be an undercount. They say that no military-issue gun was used in a felony in 2018, but the AP found that at least one was.

In June 2018, police in Albany, N.Y., were searching for a suspect in an April shooting that involved the Beretta M9 stolen from the Army. By the time authorities found him two months later, bullet-casing analysis would link the gun to two other shootings, plus a fourth in 2017.

The Army still doesn't know who stole the gun, or when.

Information for this article was contributed by Jeannie Ohm, Brian Barrett, Randy Herschaft, Jennifer Farrar, Michael Hill and Pia Deshpande of The Associated Press.

In this June 21, 2019, photo made available by the U.S. Marine Corps, a recruit receives a rifle at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C. The armory is in charge of over 10,000 rifles on Parris Island. 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. AP’s total is a certain undercount of a problem some armed services have downplayed. (Lance Cpl. Ryan Hageali/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)
In this June 21, 2019, photo made available by the U.S. Marine Corps, a recruit receives a rifle at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C. The armory is in charge of over 10,000 rifles on Parris Island. 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. AP’s total is a certain undercount of a problem some armed services have downplayed. (Lance Cpl. Ryan Hageali/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)
In this April 2, 2015, photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, a senior airman from the 49th Security Forces Squadron in charge of the armory,  returns an M4 carbine to a rack at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The Pentagon used to share annual updates about missing weapons with Congress, but that requirement ended and, with it, public accountability has slipped. The Army and Air Force couldn’t readily tell AP how many weapons they were missing from 2010 through 2019. (Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya/U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this April 2, 2015, photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, a senior airman from the 49th Security Forces Squadron in charge of the armory, returns an M4 carbine to a rack at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The Pentagon used to share annual updates about missing weapons with Congress, but that requirement ended and, with it, public accountability has slipped. The Army and Air Force couldn’t readily tell AP how many weapons they were missing from 2010 through 2019. (Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya/U.S. Air Force via AP)
This Aug. 22, 2019, image from video made available by the U.S. Marine Corps shows redesigned armories in the 3rd Marine Logistics Group intended to improve efficiency and cleanliness at Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan. Top officials within the Army, Marines and Secretary of Defense’s office say weapon accountability is a high priority and when the military knows a weapon is missing, that does indeed provoke a large-scale response to recover it. (U.S. Marine Corps via AP)
This Aug. 22, 2019, image from video made available by the U.S. Marine Corps shows redesigned armories in the 3rd Marine Logistics Group intended to improve efficiency and cleanliness at Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan. Top officials within the Army, Marines and Secretary of Defense’s office say weapon accountability is a high priority and when the military knows a weapon is missing, that does indeed provoke a large-scale response to recover it. (U.S. Marine Corps via AP)
This July 1, 2012, photo released by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command on Feb. 26, 2021, shows a U.S. Army storage yard in Kabul, Afghanistan. Army investigators determined that 65 handguns had been stolen from a cargo container. The theft went undetected until empty pistol boxes were discovered on the compound and a full inventory was taken. (U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command via AP)
This July 1, 2012, photo released by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command on Feb. 26, 2021, shows a U.S. Army storage yard in Kabul, Afghanistan. Army investigators determined that 65 handguns had been stolen from a cargo container. The theft went undetected until empty pistol boxes were discovered on the compound and a full inventory was taken. (U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command via AP)
This July 1, 2012, photo released by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command on Feb. 26, 2021, shows an instruction manual for a Beretta 9mm handgun at an Army storage yard in Kabul, Afghanistan. Army investigators determined that 65 handguns had been stolen from a cargo container. The theft went undetected until empty pistol boxes were discovered on the compound and a full inventory was taken. (U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command via AP)
This July 1, 2012, photo released by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command on Feb. 26, 2021, shows an instruction manual for a Beretta 9mm handgun at an Army storage yard in Kabul, Afghanistan. Army investigators determined that 65 handguns had been stolen from a cargo container. The theft went undetected until empty pistol boxes were discovered on the compound and a full inventory was taken. (U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command via AP)
This Oct. 11, 2017, image from video made available by the U.S. Air Force shows a gun vault at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont. In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an Associated Press investigation has found that at least 1,900 US military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in violent crimes. Because some armed services have suppressed the release of basic information, AP’s total is a certain undercount. (U.S. Air Force via AP)
This Oct. 11, 2017, image from video made available by the U.S. Air Force shows a gun vault at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont. In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an Associated Press investigation has found that at least 1,900 US military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in violent crimes. Because some armed services have suppressed the release of basic information, AP’s total is a certain undercount. (U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this June 17, 2020, photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, a member of security forces stands at the 316th Security Support Squadron armory window to receive weapons and equipment for his shift at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Using government records covering the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force, an Associated Press investigation showed that military pistols, machine guns, shotguns and assault rifles vanished from armories, supply warehouses, Navy warships, firing ranges and other places where they were used, stored or transported. (Senior Airman Kaylea Berry/U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this June 17, 2020, photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, a member of security forces stands at the 316th Security Support Squadron armory window to receive weapons and equipment for his shift at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Using government records covering the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force, an Associated Press investigation showed that military pistols, machine guns, shotguns and assault rifles vanished from armories, supply warehouses, Navy warships, firing ranges and other places where they were used, stored or transported. (Senior Airman Kaylea Berry/U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this Oct. 26, 2018, photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, a 7th Reconnaissance Squadron security forces patrolman checks weapons at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an Associated Press investigation has found that at least 1,900 US military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in violent crimes.  Because some armed services have suppressed the release of basic information, AP’s total is a certain undercount. (Staff Sgt. Ramon A. Adelan/U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this Oct. 26, 2018, photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, a 7th Reconnaissance Squadron security forces patrolman checks weapons at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an Associated Press investigation has found that at least 1,900 US military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in violent crimes. Because some armed services have suppressed the release of basic information, AP’s total is a certain undercount. (Staff Sgt. Ramon A. Adelan/U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this April 2, 2015, photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, a senior airman from the 49th Security Forces Squadron in charge of the armory returns an M4 carbine to a rack at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Using government records covering the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force, an Associated Press investigation showed that military pistols, machine guns, shotguns and assault rifles vanished from armories, supply warehouses, Navy warships, firing ranges and other places where they were used, stored or transported. (Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya/U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this April 2, 2015, photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, a senior airman from the 49th Security Forces Squadron in charge of the armory returns an M4 carbine to a rack at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Using government records covering the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force, an Associated Press investigation showed that military pistols, machine guns, shotguns and assault rifles vanished from armories, supply warehouses, Navy warships, firing ranges and other places where they were used, stored or transported. (Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya/U.S. Air Force via AP)

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