For years US Army hid, downplayed extent of firearms loss
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 weapons have been used in shootings, brandished to rob and threaten people, including children, 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. His superiors later blocked its release.
As AP continued to press for information, including through legal challenges, the Army produced a list of missing weapons that was clearly incomplete. They later produced a second set of records that also did not give a full count.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, when AP first published its investigation, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., 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.
The Army wasn’t alone in keeping details of missing weapons from the public. While the Marines and Navy produced accountings, the Air Force refused to release data or discuss trends.
Brig. Gen. Duane Miller, the Army’s No. 2 law enforcement official, said missing weapons cases are thoroughly investigated and represent a small fraction of the Army’s more than 10,000 felony cases 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.”
The Associated Press began investigating the loss and theft of military firearms by asking a simple question in 2011: How many guns are unaccounted for across the Army, Marines Corps, Navy and Air Force?
AP was told the answer could be found in the Department of Defense Small Arms and Light Weapons Registry. That centralized database, which the Army oversees, tracks the life cycle of rifles, pistols, shotguns, machine guns and more. Getting data from the registry, however, would require a formal Freedom of Information Act request.
That request, filed in 2012, came to Charles Royal, then the longtime Army civilian employee who was in charge of the registry at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.
Royal was accustomed to inquiries. Military and civilian law enforcement agencies would call him thousands of times each year, often because they were looking for a military weapon or had recovered one.
In response to AP’s request, Royal pulled data on missing weapons, then showed the results to his boss.
“After he got it, he said, ‘We can’t be letting this out like this,’” said Royal.
His boss didn’t say exactly why, but Royal, who is now retired, said the release he prepared was heavily scrutinized within the Army.
“The numbers that we were going to give was going to kind of freak everybody out to a certain extent,” Royal said -- not just because they were firearms, but also because the military requires strict supervision of them.
AP was unable to reach Royal’s boss and an Army spokesman had no comment on the handling of the FOIA request.
The Army told AP in 2013 it would not release anything. The AP appealed, and won, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the Army released a small batch of data from the registry. The records listed 288 firearms over six years.
Though years in the making, the response was clearly incomplete.
So reporters filed another records act request, this time for criminal investigations.
In response, Army’s Criminal Investigation Command produced summaries of closed missing weapons cases. Army officials cited those as encompassing the most accurate list of losses. The total -- 230 missing rifles or handguns during the 2010s -- was yet again a clear undercount.
Army’s first two answers -- 288 and 230 -- are contradicted by an internal analysis.
In 2019 and 2020, the Army distributed memos saying the numbers of missing “arms and arms components remain the same or increased” over the seven years covered by the memos. Army officials cautioned the internal memos may have mistakes.
The document counted 1,303 missing rifles and handguns from 2013-2019. It cited theft and “neglect” as the most common factors.
Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee; LaPorta reported from Boca Raton, Florida; Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Also contributing were Lolita Baldor and Dan Huff in Washington; Brian Barrett in New York; and Justin Myers in Chicago.