WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pulling a pistol from his waistband, the young man spun his human shield toward police.
“Don’t do it!” a pursuing officer pleaded. The young man complied, releasing the bystander and tossing the gun, which skittered across the city street and then into the hands of police.
They soon learned that the 9mm Beretta had a rap sheet. Bullet casings linked it to four shootings, all of them in Albany, New York.
And there was something else. The pistol was U.S. Army property, a weapon intended for use against America’s enemies, not on its streets.
The Army couldn’t say how its Beretta M9 got to New York’s capital. Until the June 2018 police foot chase, the Army didn’t even realize someone had stolen the gun. Inventory records checked by investigators said the M9 was 600 miles away -- safe inside Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“It’s incredibly alarming,” said Albany County District Attorney David Soares. “It raises the other question as to what else is seeping into a community that could pose a clear and present danger.”
The armed services and the Pentagon are not eager for the public to know the answer.
In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an Associated Press investigation has found that at least 1,900 U.S. military firearms were lost or stolen during the 2010s, with some resurfacing in violent crimes. Because some armed services have suppressed the release of basic information, AP’s total is a certain undercount.
Government records covering the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force show pistols, machine guns, shotguns and automatic assault rifles have vanished from armories, supply warehouses, Navy warships, firing ranges and other places where they were used, stored or transported. These weapons of war disappeared because of unlocked doors, sleeping troops, a surveillance system that didn’t record, break-ins and other security lapses that, until now, have not been publicly reported.
While AP’s focus was firearms, military explosives also were lost or stolen, including armor-piercing grenades that ended up in an Atlanta backyard.
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, when empty pistol boxes were discovered in the compound. The weapons were not recovered.
Even elite units are not immune. A former member of a Marines special operations unit was busted with two stolen guns. A Navy SEAL lost his pistol during a fight in a restaurant in Lebanon.
The Pentagon used to share annual updates about stolen weapons with Congress, but the requirement to do so ended years ago and public accountability has slipped. The Army and Air Force, for example, couldn’t readily tell AP how many weapons were lost or stolen from 2010 through 2019. So the AP built its own database, using extensive federal Freedom of Information Act requests to review hundreds of military criminal case files or property loss reports, as well as internal military analysis and data from registries of small arms.
Sometimes, weapons disappear without a paper trail. Military investigators regularly close cases without finding the firearms or person responsible because shoddy records lead to dead ends.
The military’s weapons are especially vulnerable to corrupt insiders responsible for securing them. They know how to exploit weak points within armories or the military’s enormous supply chains. Often from lower ranks, they may see a chance to make a buck from a military that can afford it.
“It’s about the money, right?” said Brig. Gen. Duane Miller, who as deputy provost marshal general is the Army’s No. 2 law enforcement official.
Theft or loss happens more than the Army has publicly acknowledged. 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. But an internal analysis AP obtained, done by the Army’s Office of the Provost Marshal General, tallied 1,303 firearms.