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ATF’s problem of ‘lost, stolen, or missing’ guns has gotten better, but it’s still a problem

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Firearms waiting to be destroyed in a vault at the ATF National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., in 2010. 

Gun control is a never-ending argument in American politics, but it should not be an issue within U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Yet, here comes another report about loose controls leading to government firearms getting lost or being stolen.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “generally has strong physical controls.” But a report by an internal watchdog also found record-keeping deficiencies, storage shortcomings and just plain sloppiness with guns.

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General determined that the ATF, responsible for tracking stolen weapons, had “26 instances of lost, stolen, or missing firearms” between fiscal 2014 and 2017. Although that is not much compared with the organization’s more than 35,500 firearms, stun guns and silencers, it is disturbing, particularly because one of the stolen guns was later used in a crime. Presumably, silencers are used for training because police are not in the ambush business.

This report also is troubling because it is not the only one about police losing guns.

“Our findings are particularly concerning,” Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said last week, “because prior audits identified similar issues and recommended corrective action.”

Newly released audit on ATF’s controls over its own weapons and explosives

Audits going back 16 years also identified ATF “control weaknesses over its ammunition inventories.” The agency developed better record-keeping in 2002, yet a 2008 report found that the “ATF failed to enforce the requirement to perform annual ammunition inventories and maintain accurate and complete ammunition inventory records.” Although the ATF’s monthly loss rate for firearms has decreased 55 percent since 2008, it remains slightly higher than in 2002.

An agency statement said the “ATF is committed to strictly enforcing all of the established agency policies for reconciling records, storage, tracking and physical security. The OIG report recognizes the effective internal controls dealing with ATF owned weapons that are tracked in the electronic property management systems.”

ATF firearms have vanished under embarrassing circumstances, according to the report:

  • Ten firearms, including one rifle, were stolen from government vehicles in separate incidents. The agents received four- or five-day suspensions.
  • A neighbor found an ATF gun on top of a vehicle. The responsible agent was suspended for four days.
  • Agents twice lost pistols at restaurants. One officer received a letter of reprimand; the other was suspended for eight days.
  • An agent who left a weapon in a briefcase on the Metro was suspended for 10 days.
  • A missing revolver was found in an employee’s personal car, resulting in a 25-day suspension, the severest disciplinary action listed.

Horowitz said his office identified “several significant deficiencies related to tracking and inventory of ammunition. For example, ammunition tracking records were understated by almost 31 thousand rounds at the 13 sites we audited. Given that ATF has over 275 offices, the number of unaccounted ammunition rounds is likely much higher.”

That raises a disconcerting question — does the ATF know how much ammunition is missing? If all 275 offices have unaccounted materiel at the rate of the 13 audited sites, that would equal more than 650,000 rounds. That’s a lot of bullets.

“When inventories are inaccurate,” Horowitz said, “there is increased risk that ammunition may be lost, stolen, or misplaced without detection.”

That also applies to explosives.

Despites the ATF’s generally strong control of explosives, inspectors could not find all the explosive material recorded on the agency’s log: “Therefore ATF cannot provide evidence that the explosives were not lost or stolen.”

If we were talking about a comparatively few missing paper clips in an area of otherwise strong controls, this wouldn’t be a problem. But even a few missing guns, explosives and bullets is serious business, particularly because this is a recurring situation with federal law enforcement.

The inspector general’s office made 10 recommendations, and the ATF agreed with all of them. The recommendations focused on better record-keeping and inventory controls, including not storing ammunition in public facilities, as two field offices had done.

When it comes to missing goods, the ATF is not alone.

Department of Homeland Security employees lost 228 firearms, 1,889 badges and 25 secure immigration stamps from fiscal 2014 through 2016, according to an October report by the DHS inspector general. That report followed a similar one in 2010 about 289 lost handguns, rifles and shotguns over a three-year period by the DHS, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency.

“The highly sensitive nature and potential for public harm intensifies the significance of each lost firearm, badge, and secure immigration stamp,” the report said. “It is crucial for DHS officers entrusted to protect the public to set the standard by adhering to policy and properly safeguarding high-risk assets.”

Two years ago, the Justice Department’s inspector general found problems with the Bureau of Prisons’s “controls and practices for safeguarding armory munitions and equipment that increase the risk that these materials could be lost, misplaced or stolen without being detected.”

That’s a scary thought. Guns could be gone, and no one would ever know.

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