The U.S. Army has hidden or downplayed the extent to which its firearms disappear, significantly understating losses and thefts even as some weapons are used in street crimes.
The Army’s pattern of secrecy and suppression dates back nearly a decade, when The Associated Press began investigating weapons accountability within the military. Officials fought the release of information for years, then offered misleading answers that contradict internal records.
Military guns aren’t just disappearing. Stolen guns have been used in shootings, brandished to rob and threaten people and recovered in the hands of felons. Thieves sold assault rifles to a street gang.
Army officials cited information that suggests only a couple of hundred firearms vanished during the 2010s. Internal Army memos that AP obtained show losses many times higher.
Efforts to suppress information date to 2012, when AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from a registry where all four armed services are supposed to report firearms loss or theft.
The former Army insider who oversaw this registry described how he pulled an accounting of the Army’s lost or stolen weapons, but learned later that his superiors blocked its release.
As AP continued to press for information, including through legal challenges, the Army produced a list of missing weapons that was so clearly incomplete officials later disavowed it. They then produced a second set of records that also did not give a full count.
Secrecy surrounding a sensitive topic extends beyond the Army. The Air Force wouldn’t provide data on missing weapons, saying answers would have to await a federal records request AP filed 1.5 years ago.
The broader Department of Defense also has not released reports of weapons losses that it receives from the armed services. It would only provide approximate totals for two years of AP's 2010 through 2019 study period.
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 being “significant,” but no such notification has been made since at least 2017.
On Tuesday, when AP first published its investigation, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., demanded during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the Pentagon resurrect regular reporting. In a written statement to AP, the Pentagon said it “looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to ensure appropriate oversight.”
Blumenthal also challenged Army Secretary Christine Wormuth on her branch’s release of information.
“I’d be happy to look into how we’ve handled this issue,” Wormuth replied. She described herself as “open to” a new reporting requirement and said the number of military firearms obtained by civilians is likely small.
Poor record-keeping in the military’s vast inventory systems means lost or stolen guns can be listed on property records as safe. Security breakdowns were evident all the way down to individual units, which have destroyed records, falsified inventory checks and ignored procedures.
Brig. Gen. Duane Miller, the No. 2 law enforcement official in the Army, said that when a weapon does vanish the case is thoroughly investigated. He pointed out that weapons cases are a small fraction of the more than 10,000 felony cases Army investigators open each year.
“I absolutely believe that the procedures we had in place absolutely mitigated any weapon from getting lost or stolen,” Miller said of his own experience as a commander. “But does it happen? It sure does.”