The young man spun his human shield toward police
, pulling a pistol from his waistband.
“Don’t do it!” pleaded a pursuing officer, and the young man relented, releasing the bystander and tossing the gun, which skittered across the city street and into the hands of police.
They soon discovered that the 9mm Beretta had a criminal record, with bullet casings linking it to four shootings
in Albany, New York
And there was more: the pistol was US Army property, a weapon designed for use against America
's enemies rather than on its streets.
The Army couldn't explain how its Beretta M9 ended up in New York's capital; until the June 2018 police foot chase, the Army didn't even realize the gun had been stolen. Inventory records checked by investigators revealed that the M9 was safe inside Fort Bragg, North Carolina
, 600 miles away.
“It’s extremely concerning,” said Albany County District Attorney
David Soares, adding, “it begs the question of what else is seeping into a community that could pose
a clear and present danger.”
The military and the Pentagon
are not eager for the public to learn the answer.
An Associated Press
investigation discovered that at least 1,900 U.S. military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in violent crimes, in the first public accounting of its kind in decades. Because some armed services suppressed the release of basic information, the AP's total is likely an undercount.
Pistols, machine guns
, shotguns, and automatic assault rifles have vanished from armories, supply warehouses, Navy warships, firing ranges, and other locations where they were used, stored, or transported, according to government records covering the Army, Marine Corps
, Navy, and Air Force
. These weapons of war vanished due to unlocked doors, sleeping troops, a surveillance system that did not record, and a surveillance system that did not record, break and enter.
While the Associated Press focused on firearms, military explosives, such as armor-piercing grenades, were also lost or stolen, ending up in an Atlanta
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, until empty pistol boxes were discovered in the compound.
Even elite units are not immune: a former Marine special operations unit member was caught with two stolen guns, and a Navy SEAL lost his pistol during a fight in a restaurant in Lebanon
The Pentagon used to provide annual updates to Congress
on stolen weapons, but the requirement to do so expired years ago, and public accountability has slipped. For example, the Army and Air Force couldn't easily tell the AP how many weapons were lost or stolen from 2010 to 2019. So the AP created its own database, utilizing extensive federal Freedom of Information Act requests to review hundreds of documents.
Because shoddy records lead to dead ends, military investigators frequently close cases without finding the firearms or the person responsible.
The military's weapons are especially vulnerable to corrupt insiders in charge of securing them; they know how to exploit weak points within armories or the military's massive supply chains, and they often come from lower ranks because they see an opportunity to make a buck from a military that can afford it.
We take this very seriously and believe we do an excellent job, but that doesn't mean there aren't losses or mistakes.
a spokesperson for the Pentagon
“It’s all about the money
, isn’t it?” said Brig. Gen. Duane Miller, the Army’s No. 2 law
enforcement official as deputy provost marshal general.
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. However, an internal analysis obtained by AP, performed by the Army's Office of the Provost Marshal General, tallied 1,303 firearms.
Miller said in a second interview that he was unaware of the memos, which had been distributed throughout the Army, until the 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 could overstate some losses.
The AP's investigation began a decade ago, and the Army has provided conflicting information on a subject that has the potential to embarrass, and that's when it has provided information at all. A former insider described how Army officials resisted releasing details about missing guns when the AP first inquired, and that information was never provided.
Top officials from the Army, Marine Corps, and the Secretary of Defense's office stated that weapon accountability is a top priority, and that when the military is aware of a missing weapon, it initiates a coordinated effort to recover it. The officials also stated that missing weapons are not a widespread issue, and that the number represents a tiny fraction of the military's stockpile.
“We have a very large inventory of several million of these weapons,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby in an interview. “We take this very seriously and we think we do a very good job, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t losses or mistakes made.”
Kirby, on the other hand, claims that such errors are rare, and that the military was able to account for 99.999% of its firearms last year. “Although the numbers are small, one is too many,” he says.
In the absence of a regular reporting requirement, the Pentagon is responsible for informing Congress of any “significant” incidents of missing weapons, which hasn’t happened since at least 2017. While a missing portable missile such as a Stinger would qualify for notification, a stolen machine gun would not, according to a senior Department of Defense official whom the Pentagon provided for.
Despite the fact that the AP's analysis was conducted in the 2010s, incidents continue to occur.
An Army trainee fleeing Fort Jackson
in South Carolina
with an M4 rifle hijacked a school bus full of children
in May, pointing his unloaded assault weapon
at the driver before eventually letting everyone go.
Last October, police in San Diego
were taken aback when they discovered a military grenade launcher on the front seat of a car they had stopped for expired license plates; the driver and his passenger were both middle-aged men with criminal records.
After the arrest
was made public, police received a call from a Marine Corps base on the Pacific coast, asking if the grenade launcher was one they needed to locate, and reading off a serial number.
It didn't work
Stolen military weapons have been sold to street gang members, found on felons, and used in violent crimes.
The Associated Press identified eight cases in which five different stolen military firearms were used in a civilian shooting or other violent crime, as well as others in which felons were caught possessing weapons. To find these cases, the AP combed investigative and court records, as well as published reports.
When a gun is lost or stolen, the military is required to notify civilian law enforcement, and the services assist in subsequent investigations. However, 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 thing the AP could find to an independent tally was done by the FBI
's Criminal Justice
Information Services, which reported that 22 guns issued by the United States
military were used in a felony during the 2010s. That total could include surplus weapons that the military sells to the public or lends to civilian law enforcement.
According to the FBI, no military-issued firearms were used in a felony in 2018, but at least one was.
In June 2018, Albany police were looking for 21-year-old Alvin Damon, who had been implicated in a shooting involving the Beretta M9, a workhorse weapon for the military that is similar to a civilian model produced by Beretta.
Surveillance video obtained by the AP shows another man firing the gun four times off camera at a group of people
, taking cover behind a building between shots, scattering two men walking with him, one dropping his hat in the street. No one was injured.
Two months later, Detective Daniel Seeber saw Damon on a stoop near the Prince
Deli corner store, and Damon took off running, grabbing a bystander who had just emerged from the deli with juice and a bag of chips.
Officers collected the pistol after Detective Seeber defused the standoff. A search by New York State Police yielded leads to four Albany shootings, including one the day before in which a bullet lodged in a living room wall, and another in which someone was shot in the ankle
The ATF contacted the Army's Criminal Investigation
Command, and a review of Army inventory systems revealed that the M9 had been listed as "in-transit" between two Fort Bragg units for two years before police recovered it.
And the Army has no idea who or when stole the gun.
The case was not the first in which police recovered a stolen service pistol before troops at Fort Bragg realized it was missing; the Associated Press discovered a second instance, involving a pistol that was among 21 M9s stolen from an arms room.
By then, one of the M9s had been recovered in a North Carolina backyard not far from Fort Bragg, and another had been seized in Durham after being used in a parking lot shooting.
Another consistent source of weapons in North Carolina has been Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, where authorities frequently have an open missing weapons investigation. In 2011, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service discovered a Beretta M9 stolen from a Lejeune armory during a cocaine bust.
In 2017, deputies in South Carolina were called after a man began wildly shooting an M9 pistol into the air during an argument with his girlfriend; the boyfriend, a convicted felon, then began 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 looking for AK-74 assault rifles 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 AKs have yet to be recovered.
THREAT TO INSIDER
Those who handle and secure military weapons have the easiest access to them.
According to Col. Kenneth Williams, director of supply under the Army's G-4 Logistics branch, they are frequently junior soldiers assigned to armories or weapons rooms.
“This is a young guy or gal,” Williams explained, “typically on their first tour of duty, so you can see that we place a lot of responsibility on our soldiers right away.”
Armorers have access to firearms as well as spare parts stored for repairs, such as upper receivers, lower receivers, and trigger assemblies, which can be used to create new guns or improve existing ones.
“We’ve seen issues like that in the past, where an armorer might build an M16” automatic assault rifle out of 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 capable of turning a civilian AR-15 fully automatic were missing, and investigators discovered an armory inventory manager was manipulating electronic records by moving
items or claiming they had been transferred.
Armorers are supposed to check weapons when they open each day, and 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 people have been stealing from armories for as long as there have been armories.
Weapons reach the general public through three main channels: direct sales from thieves to buyers, pawn shops and surplus stores, and online.
Investigators discovered sensitive and restricted military weapon parts on websites such as eBay, which stated in a statement that it has "zero tolerance" for stolen military gear on its site.
Soldiers stole machine gun parts and other items from Fort Campbell, Kentucky
, and sold them online to buyers in Russia
, and other countries. The civilian ringleader, who was discovered with a warehouse full of items, was convicted, and authorities said he made hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Recovery of a weapon, on the other hand, is frequently difficult.
When an M203 grenade launcher was not found during a 2019 inventory at a Marine Corps supply base in Albany, Georgia
, investigators looked for surveillance camera footage, which didn't exist because the system couldn't be played back at the time, according to the warehouse manager.
An examination of 45 firearms-only investigations in the Navy and Marine Corps discovered that in 55% of cases, no suspect could be found and weapons remained unaccounted for; in those unresolved cases, investigators discovered that records were destroyed or falsified, armories lacked basic security
, and inventories were not completed for weeks or months.
“Gun-decking” is Navy slang for faking work, and it resulted in the disappearance of three pistols aboard the USS Comstock.
In the 2012 case, investigators discovered numerous security flaws, including one sailor sleeping in the armory. The missing pistols were not properly logged in the ship's inventory when they were received several days before, and investigators couldn't pinpoint when they vanished because sailors gun-decked inventory reports by not doing actual counts.
DISCRETION IS ALLOWED
Military officials refused to say how many weapons they have, let alone how many are missing.
According to the nonprofit organization Small Arms Survey, the Army, the largest of the armed services, is responsible for approximately 3.1 million small arms, with the US military
having an estimated 4.5 million firearms across all four branches.
AP excluded cases where firearms were lost in combat, during accidents such as aircraft crashes, and similar incidents where the fate of a weapon was known from its accounting whenever possible.
In contrast to the Army and Air Force, which were unable to answer basic questions about missing weapons, the Marines and Navy were able to produce data from the 2010s.
According to the Navy data, 211 firearms were reported lost or stolen, with 63 previously thought to be missing being recovered.
According to an AP analysis of Marine Corps data, 204 firearms were lost or stolen, with 14 recovered later.
The Pentagon relies on incident reports from the services to account for missing weapons, which it only keeps for three years.
According to Pentagon officials, approximately 100 firearms were unaccounted for in both 2019 and 2018, with the majority of those attributable to accidents or combat losses. Even though AP's total excluded accidents and combat losses when known, it was higher than what the services reported to the Pentagon.
The officials said they could only discuss how many weapons were missing prior to 2018. This is because they aren't required to keep earlier records. However, without providing documentation, the Pentagon said the number of missing weapons was significantly lower in 2020, when the pandemic
curtailed many military operations.
The Air Force was the only service branch that did not release data, initially claiming that no records existed in response to several Freedom of Information Act requests, and then stating that they would not provide details until another FOIA request, filed 1.5 years ago, was fully processed.
One gun causes a lot of devastation, and it then falls on local officials and law enforcement to work extra hard to get those guns out of the community.
The District Attorney for Albany County is
The Army attempted to conceal information about missing weapons and provided inaccurate figures that contradicted internal memos.
The Associated Press began asking the Army for details on missing weapons in 2011, and a year later filed a formal request 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 in charge of the registry, said that he prepared records for release that higher-ups eventually blocked.
“You're dealing with millions of weapons,” Royal explained 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 on that.”
Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley, an Army spokesman, said the service's property inventory systems don't easily track how many weapons have been lost or stolen. Army officials said the most accurate count could be found in criminal investigative summaries released as part of yet another federal records request.
According to the AP's review of these investigative records, 230 rifles or handguns were lost or stolen between 2010 and 2019 – a significant undercount, and internal documents show how much Army officials were downplaying the problem.
The Associated Press obtained two memos covering the years 2013 to 2019, in which the Army tallied 1,303 stolen or lost rifles and handguns, with theft being the most common cause of loss. That figure, which Army officials said is imprecise 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,” according to Kelley, and were not thoroughly reviewed with public release in mind, so the 1,303 total may be inaccurate.
According to the records Kelley cited, 62 rifles or handguns were lost or stolen between 2013 and 2019. Some of them, such as the Beretta M9 used in four shootings in Albany, New York, were recovered.
“One gun causes a ton of devastation,” Albany County District Attorney Soares explained, “and then it puts the burden on local officials and local law enforcement to work extra hard to try to remove those guns from the community.”
Jeannie Ohm in Arlington, Virginia
; Brian Barrett, Randy Herschaft, and Jennifer Farrar in New York; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; and Pia Deshpande in Chicago
contributed. Hall reported from Nashville
; LaPorta from Boca Raton, Florida
; Pritchard from Los Angeles
; and Myers from Chicago.