Congress seeks to lift gun ban at military outposts despite Army’s concerns
Republican lawmakers cite fears of lone wolf attacks like the Chattanooga shooting even as military leaders warn against ‘over-arming ourselves’
While attempts to enact stricter gun laws at the federal level remain stalled in Congress despite a series of recent high-profile mass shootings, certain restrictions on firearms may actually be loosened.
State and federal lawmakers are eying ways to eliminate so-called “military gun-free zones” after a lone gunman shot and killed five service personnel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, earlier this month. In the wake of the shooting, a flood of legislation has been introduced to reverse a decades-old policy that bars military personnel from carrying firearms at recruitment centers and on bases. And army leaders, while not entirely behind the idea, have conceded they might support tweaking the directive.
Five US service members were killed in the attack on 16 July, when 24-year-old gunman Mohammed Youssuf Abdulazeez opened fire on both a recruiting station and a naval reserve support center within several miles of each other before he was shot dead by police.
Although authorities have yet to determine the shooter’s motive , the killings have spurred widespread calls on the military to arm its personnel – particularly at recruiting centers, where critics argue that service members are open targets at a time when the threat of domestic terrorism looms especially large. Republican presidential candidates have also thrown themselves behind a reversal of the current policy, elevating the issue to the national political discourse.
Under the Department of Defense directive enacted in 1992 by former President George HW Bush, only military police or security officials are allowed to carry weapons at recruiting centers and at US bases within the country. The Obama administration has requested a review of the current policy after the Chattanooga shooting, but defense secretary Ash Carter maintained a degree of caution on how best to proceed.
“We need to recruit, but we can’t put people at unnecessary risk as well,” Carter said during a visit with US troops in Baghdad. “I’ll make decisions sometime in the next few days.”
The US army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, also questioned whether arming troops might “cause more problems than it solves”.
“I think we have to be careful about over-arming ourselves, and I’m not talking about where you end up attacking each other,” Odierno said after the shooting, citing concerns over “accidental discharges and everything else that goes along with having weapons that are loaded that causes injuries”.
Indeed, the Pentagon has already been forced to push back on the presence outside some recruitment centers of armed civilians who have voluntarily shown up to act as guards. Such self-appointed armed guards were already ordered off a property in Ohio after one of them accidentally discharged his firearm, although no one was injured.
Some longtime members of the military cautioned against politicizing a “nuanced and complex issue”. Lieutenant General H Steven Blum, who served 41 years in the US army and national guard, said it was important for the discussion to be driven not by politics, but by the threats identified by the intelligence community.
“If the threat is not a singular event that’s already occurred, but if the intelligence community and law enforcement experts conclude that it is likely that we will be seeing more of these type of attacks across the nation, then a reexamination of how we protect our force is prudent and warranted,” Blum told the Guardian. “And to not seriously address that issue in a meaningful way would be a dereliction on the part of leadership, a failure to protect these kids.”
Groups seeking to reduce gun violence also warned against decisions being made by politicians, and not those at the helm of the nation’s armed forces.
“The policy has been in place because commanders want it. Commanders are working with a wide variety of people and there’s all sorts of discipline issues within the military and I think they want to be able to regulate who has guns and when, and I think that is a matter of discipline,” said Josh Horowitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, citing the threat of accidental discharges, as well as issues related to mental health and alcohol and substance abuse. “There’s clearly a risk-benefit approach that the commanders are applying, and I think that’s ultimately a decision for them to decide who carries firearms on military property.”
Concerns nonetheless persist over whether military recruitment sites – which are often located in public areas such as strip malls and shopping centers – are adequately secure. The conundrum offered by several military experts was centered on how to keep such installations open and accessible to the public, in order to attract potential recruits, while ensuring that service members inside were not vulnerable to lone wolf attacks.
Florida representative Tom Rooney, a Republican who was a prosecutor at the Fort Hood military post in Texas, said he has “gone back and forth” on the pros and cons of arming service members on military bases – but underscored the vulnerabilities faced by those at recruiting stations.
“People that are recruiters at these strip malls are kind of like the poster people for the army, the navy, the marine corps and the air force,” Rooney told the Guardian. “The question is, do you want them to stay in those strip malls, or do you bring them back onto post where people have to go through a security to get through them. But then how many more people would you be able to recruit?”
“You have one or two guys in there – if they have a sidearm, I don’t think that would be inappropriate,” he added. “I think that puts everybody on notice that if they walk in there, someone has a weapon.”
Whether there was a need to allow service members to carry weapons on bases was a different question, Rooney said, pointing to the security measures that are already in place at US military posts and citing the risks associated with easing the rules.
“When I was a prosecutor at Fort Hood, we had a lot of bar fights, a lot of soldier-on-soldier violence that wasn’t political or religious – it was just 18-year-olds being 18-year-olds,” Rooney said. “If you introduce a weapon to that, it could get very bad.”
Brian Lepley, a spokesman for the US army recruiting command (USARC), said the best security measures were the recruiters themselves who undergo training each year.
“These guys, a great many of them, served in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they’re familiar with places where there’s danger lurking all the time,” Lepley told the Guardian. “We’re fine with the status of our security measures right now.”
USARC, he added, would not be involved in changes to firearm policies and would continue to follow the directive issued by the military. But Lepley echoed Rooney’s view that recruiting stations must remain in high-traffic areas where young men and women could be easily recruited.
“We can’t have recruiting stations be like a fortress, we can’t have them be barricaded,” he said. “It’s not very welcoming. People need to be able to find us and come talk to us.”
While it remains unclear what changes, if any, the Obama administration will embrace, the president’s nominee to be the next chief of staff of the army said he is not opposed to arming recruiters in certain cases.
“I think under certain conditions, both on military bases and in out-stations – recruiting stations, reserve centers – that we should seriously consider it, and in some cases I think it’s appropriate,” Gen Mark A Milley said while testifying at his confirmation hearing before the Senate armed services committee.
Members of Congress – including Kentucky senator Rand Paul – have introduced bills to do precisely that. The Republican presidential candidate introduced a bill last week that would allow members of the armed services to carry firearms on military installations.
“I find it ridiculous that the brave men and women serving in our armed forces are asked to defend us overseas but cannot protect themselves once they return home,” Paul said in a statement unveiling his bill, the Service Members Self Defense Act. “My bill ensures that our honorable service members are allowed to protect themselves while serving our nation at home.”
Several other Republican presidential candidates have lined up in favor of lifting the ban on guns at both military bases and recruitment sites.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker immediately called for reversing the policy in the aftermath of the Chattanooga shooting.
“If the marines were armed, I think people would’ve known that, and if they had known it, maybe they wouldn’t have come in,” Bush said the day after the shooting. “Who knows. I just think it ought to be reviewed for sure.”
Walker labeled the military gun-free zone policy as “outdated”, and went on to issue an executive order last week permitting national guard members in Wisconsin to carry weapons while on duty.
The only two Republican presidential candidates with military backgrounds – former Texas governor Rick Perry and South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham – also called for arming military personnel at home. Perry has broadly criticized gun-free zones, while Graham told the Guardian he was “all for it” when asked if he would vote for legislation repealing the ban on guns at military installations.
“I think every military member and their family is a target everywhere in the world, including in the United States. Radical jihadists are urging people to engage in lone wolf attacks in our country and the target list includes our military, and I would like to defend them better,” Graham said last week. “Wherever our commanders believe our troops need to be armed, I would lift the ban on prohibiting weapons being carried by the military if I were commander-in-chief, and I would come up with a policy in light of the threats – the threat to our military is very real, and they need to be protected.”
New Jersey governor Chris Christie has said arming military personnel in recruitment centers ought to be considered, while placing an emphasis on enforcing existing gun laws at the federal level if elected president. Florida senator Marco Rubio has not addressed the subject, and his office did not clarify his position when reached for comment by the Guardian.
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