On July 16, 2015, 24 year-old gunman Mohammed Youssef Abdulazeez went on a shooting spree at a military recruitment center and base in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing five (four Marines and a Sailor) and injuring three others.
The response from the gun lobby was rapid and predictable. The National Rifle Association’s legislative director, Chris Cox, declared, “It’s outrageous that members of our armed services have lost their lives because the government has forced them to be disarmed in the workplace.” Longtime NRA Board Member Ted Nugent tweeted, “A society that forces its military heroes to be unarmed is doomed.” It was essentially an echo of remarks he made after the September 2013 Navy Yard shooting, when he stated, “America has lost her soul when we turn US Military bases into gunfree slaughterzones Shame on us.”
These NRA leaders undoubtedly saw dollar signs as they contemplated the profit all these additional gun sales might bring in, but the U.S. military—which is tasked with ensuring our nation’s security as opposed to making a buck—was having none of it.
Army Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said, “The [Department of Defense] does not support arming all [military] personnel. We hold this position for many reasons.” Among those reasons, she cited safety concerns and the threat of accidental firearm discharges. Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, expressed the same concerns, saying, “I think we have to be careful about over-arming ourselves…[because of] accidental discharges and everything else that goes along with having weapons that are loaded that cause injuries.”
High-profile retired military personnel also weighed in in favor of maintaining current regulations, which do not allow military personnel to voluntarily carry firearms on bases. Hurricane Katrina hero Gen. Russel Honore, U.S. Army (Ret.) said, “As a country we’re in a state of denial because we’ve confused the right to bear arms with the right to carry arms all the time anywhere or anyplace you want. We have to have a different kind of conversation in America and be prepared to speak about the politically unspeakable.” Reflecting on his experience serving in a theater of war, he added, “The best place for weapons when you’re not in the field is to be locked up in the garrison. Our biggest problem before [The Gulf War] was [soldiers] accidentally firing their weapons, and they’re trained.”
In response to arming military reserves at recruitment offices Honore said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to arm military at the recruitment offices or to have civilians there with guns. That’s the job of law enforcement. On our bases, yes, we guard our gates and our bases, but not at the recruitment offices.”
It certainly didn’t help the NRA’s argument that at least two of the service members attacked by Abdulazeez were carrying firearms. Furthermore, according to Edward W. Reinhold, a special agent in the F.B.I.’s Knoxville office, “at least one of those weapons had been discharged” at Abdulazeez during the attack.
Fortunately for the NRA, that inconvenient truth and the strenuous objections of our nation’s military commanders did not stop their allies in Congress from jamming through legislation to change longstanding DoD policy. U.S. Senator and 2016 presidential candidate Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill called the “Service Members Self Defense Act” that, if passed, would lift the current ban and allow military reserves to carry firearms on military bases. Companion legislation was also introduced in the House of Representatives. Finally, Republican presidential hopefuls like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush decried the existing regulations, eager to pander to increasingly radical primary voters.
Meanwhile, inspired by the rhetoric of NRA leaders and conservative politicians alike, armed citizens have been showing up at military recruitment centers across the country brandishing AR-15s and other firearms. While they claim to be “protecting” recruiters at these sites, their vigilantism has caused a new security threat for the military as they try to grapple with the Chattanooga tragedy.
A recent policy letter from the U.S. Army Recruiting Command instructed soldiers to “avoid anyone standing outside the recruiting centers attempting to offer protection.” The Army Command Operations Center-Security Division directed, “If questioned by these alleged concerned citizens, be polite, professional and terminate the conversation immediately and report the incident to local law enforcement.” Lt. Gen. Mark Brilakis, the head of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, has stated, “These citizens’ presence, while well intentioned, will be counterproductive to our recruiting operations.” Under no circumstances should a Marine allow an armed citizen into a recruiting office, ordered Brilakis. Armed vigilantes at a recruiting center in Lancaster, Ohio were forced off the property after one of them accidentally discharged his rifle on July 23. A Navy official told CNN that recruiters are being advised to work from home if armed civilians show up outside their centers.
For his part, General Honore opined, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to…have civilians there with guns. That’s the job of law enforcement.”
The NRA and pro-gun activists often like to demean those who oppose their policies as having little or no working knowledge of firearms. That tactic is unlikely to work with the U.S. military. The fact of the matter is that those with real knowledge and experience in this area—those truly tasked with ensuring our security—have no interest in buying what the NRA is selling.