In the past five years, agents of the Bureau of Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—tasked with cracking down on the illegal flow of guns in the U.S.—have had at least 45 of their own government-issued weapons lost or stolen, a new investigation reveals.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel uncovered the losses as part of its long-term investigation into the ATF's oversteps and underachievements. In many cases, the paper says, ATF regulations were not followed:

Agents left their guns behind in bathroom stalls, at a hospital, outside a movie theater and on a plane, according to the records, obtained Tuesday by the news organization under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

In December 2009, two 6-year-old boys spotted an agent's loaded ATF Smith & Wesson .357 on a storm sewer grate in Bettendorf, Iowa. The agent lived nearby and later said he couldn't find his gun for days but didn't bother reporting it — until it hit the local newspaper.

In Los Angeles in 2011, an agent went out to a bar drinking with other agents and friends, reportedly consuming four alcoholic beverages. The next morning he woke up and realized his ATF-issued Glock was gone. It was not found.

The investigation was occasioned by the theft of a Milwaukee-based agent's three weapons, "including an ATF-owned machine gun," from a parked vehicle during a botched undercover sting two years ago.

Amazingly, the investigation's findings show a recent improvement, compared with past years: From 2002 to 2007, ATF agents had 76 guns lost or stolen—"nearly double the rate of the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration."

First-time penalties vary for any of the ATF's 2,400 agents who lose their guns, but the minimum penalty is a one-day suspension. That minimum was actually lowered from three days in 2007, the paper reports.

This isn't the first headache in recent years for the ATF. The agency came under fire last year when the Journal-Sentinel revealed it had used minors and a brain-damaged man with an IQ around 50 as part of an undercover sting. And that came on the heels of the controversial "Fast and Furious" gun-walking program—which, though overhyped by conspiracy theorists, led to a cache of weapons being lost on the streets of Mexico and the U.S.

The Journal-Sentinel sought an opinion on the ATF's gun losses from a Pittsburgh law professor specializing in law enforcement. "There's no doubt that people leave things around," he said, "but when you have an agency whose task it is is to focus on firearms, it would seem to me like an extra measure of care would be called for."

[Photo credit: AP]