The US Army has underestimated the extent to which its firearms are disappearing, hidden or downplayed, and seriously underestimated losses and thefts, even when some weapons are used in street crime.
The army’s pattern of secrecy and repression dates back nearly a decade when the Associated Press began investigating the responsibility for weapons within the military. Officials fought against disclosure of information for years and then gave misleading responses that contradicted internal records.
Military weapons don’t just go away. Stolen guns have been used in shootings, wielded to rob and threaten people, and have been found in the hands of felons. Thieves sold assault rifles to a street gang.
Army officials cited information suggesting that only a few hundred firearms went missing in the 2010s. Internal army notes received by AP show many times higher casualties.
Efforts to suppress information date back to 2012 when AP filed a Freedom of Information Act motion to request records from a registry where all four armed forces would report the loss or theft of firearms.
The former Army insider who oversaw this register described how he was taking stock of lost or stolen army’s weapons, but later learned that his superiors blocked the release.
When AP continued to press for information, including through legal challenges, the army drew up a list of missing weapons that was so clearly incomplete that officials later disavowed it. They then created a second record, which also did not give a complete count.
The secrecy of a sensitive issue goes beyond the army. The Air Force would not provide data on missing weapons, saying responses would have to wait for a federal record application filed 1.5 years ago.
The General Ministry of Defense has also not published any reports of gun casualties it receives from the armed forces. It would only provide approximate total figures for two years of the 2010 to 2019 study period of AP.
The Pentagon stopped regularly sharing information about missing weapons with Congress years ago, apparently in the 1990s. Defense Department officials said they would still notify lawmakers if a theft or loss meets the definition of “significant,” but no such notification has been made since at least 2017.
On Tuesday, when the AP first published its investigation, Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., During a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing, called for the Pentagon to revive regular reporting. In a written statement to AP, the Pentagon said it looked forward to “continuing to work with Congress to ensure proper oversight”.
Blumenthal also challenged Army Secretary Christine Wormuth for disclosing information from her department.
“I would like to see how we dealt with this issue,” replied Wormuth. She described herself as “open” to a new reporting requirement and said the number of military firearms procured by civilians is likely to be low.
Poor records in the military’s extensive inventory systems mean that lost or stolen weapons can be listed as safe on property records. Security gaps were evident right down to individual units that destroyed records, falsified inventory controls and ignored procedures.
Brig. General Duane Miller, the Army’s number 2 law enforcement agency, said that if a weapon goes missing, the case will be thoroughly investigated. He pointed out that gun crates were only a small fraction of the more than 10,000 crimes that Army investigators open each year.
“I absolutely believe that the procedures we put in place absolutely prevented a weapon from being lost or stolen,” Miller said of his own experience as a commander. “But does it happen? It definitely does. “
The Associated Press began investigating the loss and theft of military firearms in 2011 by asking a simple question: How many weapons are missing in the Army, Marines Corps, Navy, and Air Force?
AP was told that the answer could be found in the Defense Department’s Small Arms and Light Weapons Register. This centralized database, monitored by the Army, tracks the life cycle of rifles, pistols, shotguns, machine guns and more – from supply depots to armories, through missions, until the weapon is destroyed or sold.
However, in order to obtain data from the register, a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act would be required.
That application, filed in 2012, went to Charles Royal, then the long-time civil servant in the Army who was responsible for registration at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.
Royal was used to inquiries. Military and civil law enforcement agencies called him a thousand times a year, often because they were looking for or found a military weapon.
In response to the AP’s request, Royal pulled out data on missing weapons and rechecked them. Royal then showed the results to his chief, the deputy commanding officer of his department.
“After getting it, he said, ‘We can’t let this out like that,'” Royal, who retired in 2014, said in an interview last year.
His boss didn’t say exactly why, but Royal said the publication he was preparing for the loss of weapons was under scrutiny within the army.
“The numbers we were trying to give would freak anyone out to some degree,” said Royal – not only because they were firearms, but also because the military requires strict surveillance.
AP was unable to reach Royal’s supervisor and an Army spokesman had no comment on the handling of the FOIA request.
In 2013, the army said they would not publish any records. The AP appealed the decision, and nearly four years later, Army lawyers agreed that the registry entries should be public.
It wasn’t until 2019 that the army released a small amount of data. The registry’s records showed 288 firearms over six years.
Despite years of development, the answer was clearly incomplete.
Last fall, Royal stood in the stacks of the public library in Decatur, Alabama, checking the seven printed pages of records the Army eventually made available to AP.
“It’s worthless,” he said.
Royal was skeptical, saying the Army had reported only one missing weapon in several years. “Of the millions they’ve dealt with, that’s wrong,” he said in a later interview. AP has appealed the FOIA clearance for the second time.
The data wasn’t accurate even when compared to the Army’s criminal investigation files. Using the unique serial numbers assigned to each weapon, AP 19 identified missing firearms that were not in the registration data. This included an M240B machine gun that was reported missing by an Army National Guard unit in Wyoming in 2014.
The army couldn’t explain the discrepancy.
Reporters also filed another file request for criminal proceedings opened by Army investigators.
In response, the Army’s Criminal Police Command prepared summaries of the closed investigations into missing or stolen weapons, weapon parts, explosives or ammunition.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley said the record was “the most accurate list of the Army’s physical casualties.” Again, the total number of records presented – 230 missing rifles or handguns in the 2010s – was a clear shortfall.
The records did not reflect several key closed cases and excluded open cases, which typically take years to complete. That meant any gun investigators actively trying to track them down were not part of the total.
The Army’s first two replies – 288 and 230 – are refuted by an internal analysis that was initially denied by the officials.
When asked in an interview if the Army is analyzing trends in gun missions, Miller said no – there have been breakdowns from murders, rape and property crimes, but no guns lost or stolen.
“I don’t spend a lot of time tracking this data,” Miller said.
In fact, in 2019 and 2020 the Army distributed memos describing the loss of military weapons as “of paramount importance”. The number of missing “weapons and weapon components remains the same or increases” in the seven years covered by the memos, the so-called ALARACTs.
A trend analysis in the document names theft and “neglect” as the most common factors.
In the memos, 1,303 missing rifles and small arms were counted from 2013 to 2019.
During the same seven years, the investigative records that the Army believed relevant showed 62 lost or stolen rifles or small arms.
Army officials said a number was found among the 1,303 they were unable to provide. The data, which may include some combat casualties and some duplicates, comes from criminal investigations and incident reports. The internal memos are not an “authoritative document” and have not been carefully checked for public release, said Army spokesman Kelley.
Members of Miller’s physical security department tracked the data, although Miller said he did not meet the memos in person until AP brought it to his attention. He said if it was him he would have shared it.
“If a gun is lost, I worry. If 100 guns are lost, I’ll worry. If 500 are lost, I’ll worry, ”Miller said in a second interview.
Any armed service should notify the Minister of Defense of any loss or theft. This office has also not released any data to AP, but spokesman John Kirby gave the approximate number of weapons missing in recent years. The numbers were lower than the sums of AP.
“There’s no effort to hide it,” said Kirby. “There is no effort to hinder.”