US military guns keep vanishing, some used in street crimes
(AP) - Pulling a pistol from his waistband, the young man spun his human shield toward police.
“Don’t do it!” a pursuing officer pleaded. The young man complied, releasing the bystander and tossing the gun, which skittered across the city street and then into the hands of police.
They soon learned that the 9mm Beretta had a rap sheet. Bullet casings linked it to four shootings, all of them in Albany, New York.
And there was something else. The pistol was U.S. Army property, a weapon intended for use against America’s enemies, not on its streets.
The Army couldn’t say how its Beretta M9 got to New York’s capital. Until the June 2018 police foot chase, the Army didn’t even realize someone had stolen the gun. Inventory records checked by investigators said the M9 was 600 miles away -- safe inside Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“It’s incredibly alarming,” said Albany County District Attorney David Soares. “It raises the other question as to what else is seeping into a community that could pose a clear and present danger.”
The armed services and the Pentagon are not eager for the public to know the answer.
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. Because some armed services have suppressed the release of basic information, AP’s total is a certain undercount.
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, firing ranges and other places where they were used, stored or transported. These weapons of war disappeared because of unlocked doors, sleeping troops, a surveillance system that didn’t record, break-ins and other security lapses that, until now, have not been publicly reported.
While AP’s focus was firearms, military explosives also were lost or stolen, including armor-piercing grenades that ended up in an Atlanta backyard.
Weapon theft or loss spanned the military’s global footprint, touching installations from coast to coast, as well as overseas. In Afghanistan, someone cut the padlock on an Army container and stole 65 Beretta M9s -- the same type of gun recovered in Albany. The theft went undetected for at least two weeks, when empty pistol boxes were discovered in the compound. The weapons were not recovered.
Even elite units are not immune. A former member of a Marines special operations unit was busted with two stolen guns. A Navy SEAL lost his pistol during a fight in a restaurant in Lebanon.
On Tuesday, when AP published its investigation, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that she would be “open to” new oversight on weapons accountability, and said the number of military firearms obtained by civilians is likely small. 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.
“There must be full accountability in Congress with regular reporting of missing or stolen weapons,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in an interview. In a written statement, Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Candice Tresch told AP that the Defense Department “looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to ensure appropriate oversight.”
The Army and Air Force couldn’t readily tell AP how many weapons were lost or stolen from 2010 through 2019. So the AP built its own database, using extensive federal Freedom of Information Act requests to review hundreds of military criminal case files or property loss reports, as well as internal military analysis and data from registries of small arms.
Sometimes, weapons disappear without a paper trail. Military investigators regularly close cases without finding the firearms or person responsible because shoddy records lead to dead ends.
The military’s weapons are especially vulnerable to corrupt insiders responsible for securing them. They know how to exploit weak points within armories or the military’s enormous supply chains. Often from lower ranks, they may see a chance to make a buck from a military that can afford it.
“It’s about the money, right?” said Brig. Gen. Duane Miller, who as deputy provost marshal general is the Army’s No. 2 law enforcement official.
Theft or loss happens more than the Army has publicly acknowledged. During an initial interview, Miller significantly understated the extent to which weapons disappear, citing records that report only a few hundred missing rifles and handguns. But an internal analysis AP obtained, done by the Army’s Office of the Provost Marshal General, tallied 1,303 firearms.
In a second interview, Miller said he wasn’t aware of the memos, which had been distributed throughout the Army, until AP pointed them out following the first interview. “If I had the information in front of me,” Miller said, “I would share it with you.” Other Army officials said the internal analysis might overstate some losses.
The AP’s investigation began a decade ago. From the start, the Army has given conflicting information on a subject with the potential to embarrass -- and that’s when it has provided information at all. A former insider described how Army officials resisted releasing details of missing guns when AP first inquired, and indeed that information was never provided.
Top officials within the Army, Marines and Secretary of Defense’s office said that weapon accountability is a high priority, and when the military knows a weapon is missing it does trigger a concerted response to recover it. The officials also said missing weapons are not a widespread problem and noted that the number is a tiny fraction of the military’s stockpile.
“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.”
Kirby said those mistakes are few, though, and last year the military could account for 99.999% of its firearms. “Though the numbers are small, one is too many,” he said.
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 qualify for notifying 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.
While AP’s analysis covered the 2010s, incidents persist.
In May, an Army trainee who fled Fort Jackson in South Carolina with an M4 rifle hijacked a school bus full of children, pointing his unloaded assault weapon at the driver before eventually letting everyone go.
Last October, police in San Diego were startled to find a military grenade launcher on the front seat of a car they pulled over for expired license plates. The driver and his passenger were middle-aged men with criminal records.
After publicizing the arrest, police got a call from a Marine Corps base up the Pacific coast. The Marines wanted to know if the grenade launcher was one they needed to find. They read off a serial number.
It wasn’t a match.
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 different stolen military firearms were used in a civilian shooting or other violent crime, and others in which felons were caught possessing weapons. To find these cases, AP combed investigative and court records, as well as published reports. Federal restrictions on sharing firearms information publicly mean the case total is certainly an undercount.
The military requires itself to inform civilian law enforcement when a gun is lost or stolen, and the services help in subsequent investigations. The Pentagon does not track crime guns, and spokesman Kirby said his office was unaware of any stolen firearms used in civilian crimes.
The closest 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 a felony during the 2010s. That total could include surplus weapons the military sells to the public or loans to civilian law enforcement.
Those FBI records also appear to be an undercount. They say that no military-issue gun was used in a felony in 2018, but at least one was.
Back in June 2018, Albany police were searching for 21-year-old Alvin Damon. They’d placed him at a shooting which involved the Beretta M9, a workhorse weapon for the military that is similar to a model Beretta produces for the civilian market.
Surveillance video obtained by AP shows another man firing the gun four times at a group of people off camera, taking cover behind a building between shots. Two men walking with him scattered, one dropping his hat in the street. No one was injured.
Two months later, Detective Daniel Seeber spotted Damon on a stoop near the Prince Deli corner store. Damon took off running and, not far into the chase, grabbed a bystander who had just emerged from the deli with juice and a bag of chips.
After Detective Seeber defused the standoff, officers collected the pistol. A check by New York State Police returned leads to four Albany shootings, including one just the day before in which a bullet lodged in a living room wall. In another, someone was shot in the ankle.
At the request of Albany police, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced the gun’s story. The ATF contacted Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, and a review of Army inventory systems showed the M9 had been listed as “in-transit” between two Fort Bragg units for two years before police recovered it.
And the Army still doesn’t know who stole the gun, or when.
The case wasn’t the first in which police recovered a stolen service pistol before troops at Fort Bragg realized it was missing. AP found a second instance, involving a pistol that was among 21 M9s stolen from an arms room.
Military police learned of the theft in 2010. By then, one of the M9s was sitting in an evidence room in the Hoke County Sheriff’s Department, picked up in a North Carolina backyard not far from Bragg. Another M9 was later seized in Durham after it was used in a parking lot shooting.
Another steady North Carolina source of weapons has been Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, where authorities often have an open missing weapons investigation. Detectives in Baltimore found a Beretta M9 stolen from a Lejeune armory during a cocaine bust. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service found in the 2011 case that inventory and security procedures were rarely followed. Three guns were stolen; no one was charged.
Deputies in South Carolina were called in 2017 after a man started wildly shooting an M9 pistol into the air during an argument with his girlfriend. The boyfriend, a convicted felon, then started shooting toward a neighbor’s house. The pistol came from a National Guard armory that a thief entered through an unlocked door, hauling off six automatic weapons, a grenade launcher and five M9s.
Meanwhile, authorities in central California are still finding AK-74 assault rifles that were among 26 stolen from Fort Irwin a decade ago. Military police officers stole the guns from the Army base, selling some to the Fresno Bulldogs street gang.
At least nine of the AKs have not been recovered.
The people with easiest access to military firearms are those who handle and secure them.
In the Army, they are often junior soldiers assigned to armories or arms rooms, according to Col. Kenneth Williams, director of supply under the Army’s G-4 Logistics branch.
“This is a young guy or gal,” Williams said. “This is a person normally on their first tour of duty. So you can see that we put great responsibility on our soldiers immediately when they come in.”
Armorers have access both to firearms and the spare parts kept for repairs. These upper receivers, lower receivers and trigger assemblies can be used to make new guns or enhance existing ones.
“We’ve seen issues like that in the past where an armorer might build an M16” automatic assault rifle from military parts, said Mark Ridley, a former deputy director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. “You have to be really concerned with certain armorers and how they build small arms and small weapons.”
In 2014, NCIS began investigating the theft of weapons parts from Special Boat Team Twelve, a Navy unit based in Coronado, California. Four M4 trigger assemblies that could make a civilian AR-15 fully automatic were missing. Investigators found an armory inventory manager was manipulating electronic records by moving items or claiming they had been transferred. The parts were never recovered and the case was closed after federal prosecutors declined to file charges.
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.
Weapons enter the public three main ways: direct sales from thieves to buyers, through pawn shops and surplus stores, and online.
Investigators have found sensitive and restricted parts for military weapons on sites including eBay, which said in a statement it has “zero tolerance” for stolen military gear on its site.
At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, soldiers stole machine gun parts and other items that ended up with online buyers in Russia, China, Mexico and elsewhere. The civilian ringleader, who was found with a warehouse of items, was convicted. Authorities said he made hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Often though, recovering a weapon can prove hard.
When an M203 grenade launcher couldn’t be found during a 2019 inventory at a Marine Corps supply base in Albany, Georgia, investigators sought surveillance camera footage. It didn’t exist. The warehouse manager said the system couldn’t be played back at the time.
An analysis of 45 firearms-only investigations in the Navy and Marines found that in 55% of cases, no suspect could be found and weapons remained missing. In those unresolved cases, investigators found records were destroyed or falsified, armories lacked basic security and inventories weren’t completed for weeks or months.
“Gun-decking” is Navy slang for faking work. In the case of the USS Comstock, gun-decking led to the disappearance of three pistols.
Investigators found numerous security lapses in the 2012 case, including one sailor asleep in the armory. The missing pistols weren’t properly logged in the ship’s inventory when they were received several days before. Investigators couldn’t pinpoint what day they disappeared because sailors gun-decked inventory reports by not doing actual counts.
ROOM FOR DISCREPANCY
Military officials shied from discussing how many guns they have, much less how many are missing.
AP learned that the Army, the largest of the armed services, is responsible for about 3.1 million small arms. Across all four branches, the U.S. military has an estimated 4.5 million firearms, according to the nonprofit organization Small Arms Survey.
In its accounting, whenever possible AP eliminated cases in which firearms were lost in combat, during accidents such as aircraft crashes and similar incidents where a weapon’s fate was known.
Unlike the Army and Air Force, which could not answer basic questions about missing weapons, the Marines and Navy were able to produce data covering the 2010s.
The Navy data showed that 211 firearms were reported lost or stolen. In addition, 63 firearms previously considered missing were recovered.
According to AP’s analysis of data from the Marines, 204 firearms were lost or stolen, with 14 later recovered.
To account for missing weapons, the Pentagon relies on incident reports from the services, which it keeps for only three years.
Pentagon officials said that approximately 100 firearms were unaccounted for in both 2019 and 2018. A majority of those were attributable to accidents or combat losses, they said. Even though AP’s total excluded accidents and combat losses whenever known, it was higher than what the services reported to the Pentagon.
The officials said they could only discuss how many weapons were missing dating to 2018. The reason: They aren’t required to keep earlier records. Without providing documentation, the Pentagon said the number of missing weapons was down significantly in 2020, when the pandemic curtailed many military operations.
The Air Force was the only service branch not to release data. It first responded to several Freedom of Information Act requests by saying no records existed. Air Force representatives then said they would not provide details until yet another FOIA request, filed 1.5 years ago, was fully processed.
The Army sought to suppress information on missing weapons and gave misleading numbers that contradict internal memos.
The AP began asking the Army for details on missing weapons in 2011 and filed a formal request a year later for records of guns listed as missing, lost, stolen or recovered in the Department of Defense Small Arms and Light Weapons Registry. Charles Royal, the former Army civilian employee who was in charge of the registry, said that he prepared records for release that higher ups eventually blocked in 2013.
“You’re dealing with millions of weapons,” Royal said in a recent interview. “But we’re supposed to have 100% recon, right. OK, we’re not allowed a discrepancy on that. But there’s so much room for discrepancy.”
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley said the service’s property inventory systems don’t readily track how many weapons have been lost or stolen. Army officials said the most accurate count could be found in criminal investigative summaries released under yet another federal records request.
AP’s reading of these investigative records showed 230 lost or stolen rifles or handguns between 2010 and 2019 -- a clear undercount. Internal documents show just how much Army officials were downplaying the problem.
The AP obtained two memos covering 2013 through 2019 in which the Army tallied 1,303 stolen or lost rifles and handguns, with theft the primary reason for losses. That number, which Army officials said is imperfect because it includes some combat losses and recoveries, and may include some duplications, was based on criminal investigations and incident reports.
The internal memos are not “an authoritative document,” Kelley said, and were not closely checked with public release in mind. As such, he said, the 1,303 total could be inaccurate.
The investigative records Kelley cited show 62 lost or stolen rifles or handguns from 2013 through 2019. Some of those, like the Beretta M9 used in four shootings in Albany, New York, were recovered.
“One gun creates a ton of devastation,” Albany County District Attorney Soares said. “And then it puts it on local officials, local law enforcement, to have to work extra hard to try to remove those guns from the community.”
Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee; LaPorta reported from Boca Raton, Florida; Pritchard reported from Los Angeles; Myers reported from Chicago. Also contributing were Jeannie Ohm in Arlington, Virginia; Brian Barrett, Randy Herschaft and Jennifer Farrar in New York; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; Dan Huff in Washington; 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.
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