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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.
His boss didn’t say exactly why, but Royal said the release he prepared on weapons loss 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 supervisor and an Army spokesman had no comment on the handling of the FOIA request.
In 2013, the Army said it would not release any records. The AP appealed that decision and, nearly four years later, Army lawyers agreed that registry records should be public.
It wasn’t until 2019 that the Army released a small batch of data. The records from the registry showed 288 firearms over six years.
Though years in the making, the response was clearly incomplete.
Standing in the stacks at the public library in Decatur, Alabama, last fall, Royal reviewed the seven printed pages of records that Army eventually provided AP.
“This is worthless,” he said.
Told that in multiple years, the Army reported just a single missing weapon, Royal was skeptical. “Out of the millions that they handled, that’s wrong,” he said in a later interview. AP has appealed the FOIA release for a second time.
The data weren’t even accurate when compared to Army criminal investigation records. Using the unique serial numbers assigned to every weapon, AP identified 19 missing firearms that were not in the registry data. This included a M240B machine gun that an Army National Guard unit reported missing in Wyoming in 2014.
The Army could not explain the discrepancy.
Reporters also filed another records act request for criminal cases opened by Army investigators.
In response, Army’s Criminal Investigation Command produced summaries of closed investigations into missing or stolen weapons, weapons parts, explosives or ammunition.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley said that the records were “the Army’s most accurate list of physical losses.” Yet again, the total from the records provided — 230 missing rifles or handguns during the 2010s — was a clear undercount.
The records did not reflect several major closed cases and excluded open cases, which typically take years to finish. That meant any weapons investigators are actively trying to track down were not part of the total.
Army’s first two answers — 288 and 230 — are contradicted by an internal analysis, one that officials initially denied they had done.
Asked in an interview whether the Army analyzes trends of missing weapons, Miller said no — there were breakdowns of murders, rapes and property crimes, but not weapons loss or theft.
“I don’t spend a lot of time tracking this data,” Miller said.
In fact, in 2019 and 2020, the Army distributed memos describing military weapons loss as having “the highest importance.” The numbers of missing “arms and arms components remain the same or increased” over the seven years covered by the memos, called ALARACTs.
A trend analysis in the document cited theft and “neglect” as the most common factors.
The memos counted 1,303 missing rifles and handguns from 2013-2019.
During the same seven years, the investigative records the Army said were authoritative showed 62 lost or stolen rifles or handguns.
Army officials said that some number they couldn’t specify were recovered among the 1,303. The data, which could include some combat losses and may include some duplications, came from criminal investigations and incident reports. The internal memos are not “an authoritative document,” and were not closely checked with public release in mind, Army spokesman Kelley said.
Members of Miller’s physical security division were tracking the data, though Miller said he wasn’t personally aware of the memos until AP brought them to his attention. He said that that if he were, he would have shared them.
“When one weapon is lost, I’m concerned. When 100 weapons are lost, I’m concerned. When 500 are lost, I’m concerned,” Miller said in a second interview.
Each armed service is supposed to inform the Office of the Secretary of Defense of losses or thefts. That office also has not released data to AP, but spokesman John Kirby gave approximate numbers of missing weapons for the past few years. The numbers were lower than AP’s totals.
“There is no effort to conceal,” Kirby said. “There is no effort to obstruct.”
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