A senior member of the 49th Security Forces Squadron in charge of the armory returns an M4 carbine to a rack at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M in 2015
( Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya/U.S. Air Force
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. It's probably not surprising for you to learn that gun theft is a significant problem in this country. It is hard to determine exactly how many weapons are boosted each year, but at least one report from the FBI estimates 1.8 million firearms were stolen from individuals between the years 2012 and 2017. The ATF estimates approximately 54,000 more were stolen from gun stores during that time period. It's a serious problem and one that has prompted news, you can use local reporting like this segment from CBS46 in Atlanta last week.
Speaker 2: There is a way to make sure a criminal doesn't end up with your gun. Don't leave it in your car.
Speaker 3: If your firearm absolutely has to be inside of your vehicle, you want to invest in a lockbox or a safe tie to the trunk, but do not leave a firearm inside your vehicle.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm not really sure what's going on with the morning commute in Atlanta that makes it absolutely necessary to keep a firearm in your car but okay. Now that said there is one place where it indisputably makes sense for us to keep weapons. Military bases. Marines have a pile of Colt 9mms, go. Navy has a room full of M16s, seems fine. Marine locker with an M4 semi-automatic, do you, son. The presence of heavy armaments is core to the very definition of the armed services but what is surprising to learn is that the US military may need a little refresher on gun safety, PSA style. Here's our old friend McGruff the Crime Dog back in 2014.
McGruff the Crime Dog: Never let your gun get into the wrong hands. If you own a firearm and are not using it, please be responsible and be sure that it's stored in a safe place.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It is in fact reasonable to assume military custody is a safe place for weapons, but a new investigation from the Associated Press found that around 1,900 military weapons were either lost or stolen during the past decade. That number includes more than 1100 rifles, 694 handguns, 74 machine guns, and 34 rocket launchers. Once they're lost or stolen, these military weapons often resurface in places as close as Albany, New York, or as far away as Afghanistan. Sometimes being used to commit violent crimes.
With 34 missing rocket launches, I'm thinking we're going to need more than McGruff the Crime Dog. Joining me now, hopefully with the coordinates of these missing rocket launchers is Kristin Hall, a reporter at the Associated Press, and one of the journalists who broke the story. Kristin, welcome to the show.
Kristin Hall: Thank you for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is the first public accounting of its kind in decades. How did you and your team go about investigating this?
Kristin Hall: It was very difficult and it took us years to do. One reason for that is that the DOD and the military are not required to publicly report this information. That was the case at one point back in the early '90s, as we understand they were required to report equipment losses to Congress on an annual basis. When that requirement stopped public accountability slipped, but that doesn't mean that incidents in losses didn't keep happening.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you all have found it through this difficult multi-year process that 1,900 US military firearms were lost or stolen, are you confident that's the maximum number, or are you thinking that it's probably an undercount?
Kristin Hall: We know that it's an undercount for a number of reasons. For instance, the Air Force gave us no data on how many firearms they have lost or have been stolen. The army gave the AP a very clear undercount of data that didn't include things like major cases, open cases. The AP found internal memos that the army produced that showed their count of weapons loss was many times higher than what they told the AP.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What kinds of weapons are most likely to go missing?
Kristin Hall: They're the workhorse weapons of the US military so their rifles and pistols. They have several million weapons all across the globe and a lot of these fit into those two categories.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are people within the military themselves taking these? How are they getting out? How are they going missing?
Kristin Hall: There's some times where we understand that insiders, people who work and have access to armories, warehouses have been accused of taking weapons and weapons parts off posts, maybe they're selling them. Maybe they're making a new weapon, add weapons parts but a lot of times it's unclear what happens. Records are destroyed. Inventories are not taken in a proper way and investigators are reaching dead ends.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I suppose if all these weapons ended up in the same place that the left sock ends up after laundry, it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but that's not what's happening. Where do these weapons end up?
Kristin Hall: It is hard to trace where some of these weapons end up, but we have found a small number that ended up in violent crimes. For instance, we found a military pistol that was tied to four separate shootings in Albany, New York. What's interesting is that when police recovered this Beretta M9, the army didn't even know that the gun was missing from Fort Bragg.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm sorry. This is just stunning to me. Living in North Carolina not that far from Fort Bragg, having friends and family in military, it's always been my experience that soldiers and Navy folks and Marines, they are serious about weapons safety. This is truly a shocking story to me.
Kristin Hall: Certainly, weapons security is drilled into troops from the moment they get into the service, and top military officials say that it is a very high priority for them to take care of their weapons but we just found some cases where troops were sleeping on the job. There's shoddy record-keeping just a surveillance camera system that didn't work and just security lapses.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If there is meant to be an accountability space, where should the buck stop? Is it with those troops often young men and women? If they're literally sleeping on the job, it might suggest something about their exhaustion or is there someone in the Pentagon who we ought to be holding accountable?
Kristin Hall: I think transparency would help here in this situation. We have seen actually the reaction from Congress to the story was immediate. On Tuesday Army Secretary, Christine Wormuth was asked about whether she would be open to new oversight on weapons accountability. I do think that having more information about how these cases occur could help solve some of the problems.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of solving some of the problems, does the military ever recover weapons that have been lost or once they're gone are they just gone forever?
Kristin Hall: No, they do recover. In the case of the Navy and Marines but they gave us good information and that included recoveries. A lot of times a gun will go missing and it will immediately be found within 24 hours but sometimes the things go missing for several years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's dig into that for just a second, because I'm disturbed by, but I can get how a handgun might go missing, but for real, grenade and rocket launchers? Now I know that these are vanishingly small numbers, 34, 35 over the course of a decade, but still, you don't accidentally leave your rocket launcher upstairs beside your bed, where are the rocket launchers?
Kristin Hall: That's a good question. I don't know about that. I wish I did. Someone knows where they are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I really would like some-- I'm sorry, I am not an alarmist and I try very hard not to be an alarmist, but I will say that that got to me in a particular way. I suppose it shouldn't because we do know that handguns are actually the most deadly weaponry for civilian. Can you talk to me about how this story of military loss of weapons is connected to our broader guns conversation in this country?
Kristin Hall: We're certainly not suggesting that the military's lost firearms are somehow contributing to an increase in gun violence. That's not what we're saying in this story. What we are saying is that a gun that belongs to the military can end up in the hand of felons, and we've found several cases of that. They can be used in crimes.
These are weapons sometimes that civilians aren't meant to have and when they're stolen when they're taken from somewhere even when they're military property, the people that are using them or want them or buy them are not on the up and up. We found a case in Fresno, California where AK74s were sold to a Fresno street gang and several of those have not been recovered.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me also about how this might be not so much about guns, but also about reporting. Part of what I appreciate about what you said in the story is that it took years, it was you and colleagues doing this work. That is a fairly substantial investment of journalistic work, labor hours to get government accountability. It is in certain ways, the thing that American media was meant to be in our democracy. That's happening at the same time that, for example, local papers are closing, and it's harder and harder to get exactly those kinds of reporting resources.
Is there something about this story that also helps us understand the stories we may not even realize we're missing because of that sort of loss of reporting resources?
Kristin Hall: Well, certainly over the years, that I was looking at this story, or looking at this idea and trying to ask questions of the army I got told no, several times, "We're not going to give you that information. We're not going to give you these records." That is frustrating and there's a sense of, "I'm just going to move on," but to me, there's just a curiosity factor. I was seeing these cases of troops getting arrested and stealing things, and I just knew that somebody has the answers, there's information. The military counts a lot of things, has a lot of things to count.
I think there's just a persistence there of saying, no, there are numbers that you can provide. To me, I think there's accountability to the public that needs to happen because these weapons are not meant to be put on the streets or used in street crimes, they're meant to protect us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kristin Hall, I so appreciate that response in many ways. It is journalism one on one, I was curious, I was consistent, and I knew that data was out there so I kept going until I got it. Kristin Hall is a reporter and a good one at the Associated Press. Kristin, thanks so much for joining us.
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