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Years in the making, AP’s ‘AWOL Weapons’ investigation prompts immediate Pentagon reaction

A photo illustration combines a defendant’s letter to a judge in the case of weapons he stole from a Massachusetts armory and an evidence photo of an M4 carbine rifle. In the first public accounting of its kind in decades, an AP 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. AP’s total is an undercount of a problem some armed services have downplayed. (AP Illustration / Nat Castañeda)

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Ten years ago, Kristin M. Hall noticed several cases in which U.S. troops stole military guns and sold them to the public. Hall, a military beat reporter at the time, pitched the idea of doing an accounting of missing military weapons at an AP investigative seminar.

Collaborating with Justin Pritchard, one of the session’s trainers, Hall fired off the first of many Freedom of Information Act requests. The Army refused to release any records and the story could easily have ended there, with Hall moving on to become a Nashville-based entertainment video journalist focused on country music. Yet, she kept at it.

Last week,Hall’s work — and that of others on the global investigations,data and immersive storytelling teams — paid off in “AWOL Weapons,” a multilayered,visually rich project revealing that at least 1,900 military weapons — from handguns to rifles to rocket launchers — had been either lost or stolen during the 2010s,with some used in street violence in America.

But even that number was an undercount. Some of the armed services refused to release any information or tried to downplay the problem.

Two days after publication, the Pentagon’s top general and the Army each said they would seek systematic fixes for the missing weapon problem. Through a spokesman, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called AP’s investigation “another example of the free press shining a light on the important subjects we need to get right.”

The decade-long journey to publication was marked by Hall’s persistence. She worked with AP counsel Brian Barrett to press the Army to release the records. Then,in 2020,she teamed with Pritchard,a leader on the global investigations team,and opened another front in AP’s FOIA campaign,asking for records such as criminal investigative files and property loss reports. The records helped Justin Myers on the data team to build a database of missing weapons more comprehensive than what the Pentagon itself keeps.

As the reporting unfolded last year,James LaPorta and Jeannie Ohm,also of the global investigations team,jumped in to help secure vital internal memos and to ferret out the real-world consequences of military weapons theft. Ohm helped lead the push for security video of violent incidents, elements that became central to showing the dangers of these weapons on the streets.

The surveillance footage,evidence photos and court documents helped inform a stunning online presentation by Nat Castañeda,Peter Hamlin and Dario Lopez of the immersive storytelling team, with graphics by top stories senior creative lead Phil Holm that visualized Myers’ analysis. Among other highlights was a series of vignettes that allowed readers to dive into individual cases; a video explainer voiced by LaPorta,a Marine veteran, that took viewers through how the military handles its arsenal; and an illustrated guide to the types of weapons most often stolen and their lethality. Nine state-specific sidebars amplified the findings for local audiences, and a hub tied the sprawling package together.

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Clockwise from top left, graphics depicting: an M16 rifle, a Browning M2, an M4 carbine, an M240 machine gun, an M9 service pistol and an M203, 40mm grenade launcher. – AP Illustrations / Peter Hamlin

Other AP journalists contributing to the project include Randy Herschaft and Jennifer Farrar of the News Research Center; Michael Hill of Albany, N.Y.; and Washington-based video journalist Dan Huff.

Use and engagement for the Day One and Day Two lead stories was outstanding,with a combined 494,000 pageviews on apnews.com and strong engagement figures for each. The initial story made more than a dozen front pages,including in the venerable Stars and Stripes. Muckrack dubbed it as “a story we call ‘journalism works.’” Hall appeared on PRI’s “The Takeaway” and CBSN.

For remarkable persistence that revealed a problem the military wanted to keep quiet,generating immediate prospects for reform,Hall receives special distinction alongside Pritchard,LaPorta, Myers and Ohm as winners of AP’s Best of the Week award.

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