Homeland Security lost 289 weapons

WASHINGTON — Agents and officers of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported that 289 of their handguns, shotguns or automatic rifles had been lost or stolen between 2005 and 2008, with weapons left in places ranging from fast-food restaurant restrooms to bowling alleys to clothing stores, the agency's inspector general said in a report released Thursday.

Most of the losses could have been prevented, DHS inspector general Richard Skinner reported. In one case, his office stated, a border officer left a weapon in his idling vehicle at a convenience store. Both the weapon and the vehicle were stolen. In another case, a shotgun and semiautomatic rifle were stolen from an officer's closet at home. Other agents left firearms in truck beds or on vehicle bumpers, where weapons fell off as they drove away.

"The Department of Homeland Security, through its components, did not adequately safeguard and control its firearms," Skinner concluded in a 23-page report dated Jan. 25.

"Although some reported losses were beyond the officers' control, most losses occurred because officers did not properly secure firearms," the inspector general concluded. The report, first reported Thursday by USA Today, recommended that DHS set tighter department-wide rules for storing, transferring and taking inventory of weapons, and for reporting when they are lost.

While the report was embarrassing for DHS, other unidentified federal law enforcement agencies fared worse. Skinner said the Justice Department and the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, found similar problems among 18 agencies assessed between 2003 and 2007.

Overall, DHS agencies reported having more than 188,548 firearms on hand as of July, not counting the Transportation Security Administration, whose inventory is secret for security reasons. Two DHS components — Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — reported 243 lost weapons, or 84 percent of the total. TSA, the Secret Service and the Coast Guard lost 46.

About one in four losses was beyond officers' control, with weapons lost for example when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, in assaults against officers or taken from lockboxes or safes.