Should Troops Be Armed on Military Bases?

By
President Obama at Fort Hood
A Fort Hood military guard practices the 21-gun salute honoring shooting victims on April 9, 2014. Photo: Bob Daemmrich/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Republicans Donald Trump, John McCain, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul haven’t agreed on much in recent weeks, but following the killing of five service members in an attack in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last week, they’re all pushing to allow soldiers to carry firearms on base. On Monday Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm, said, “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.” The gun group has made similar arguments after every recent mass shooting, but this time politicians are already taking action.

There have been limitations on soldiers carrying firearms on bases since the Vietnam War, and those rules were formalized under legislation passed during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the policy was updated in 2011, stating that military personnel should only be armed when there is “reasonable expectation that [Department of Defense] installations, property, or personnel lives or DoD assets will be jeopardized if personnel are not armed.”

The policy has regularly been called into question, particularly after the shootings in 2009 and 2014 at Fort Hood and in 2013 at the Washington Navy Yard. The version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House in May included an amendment that allowed military personnel to carry weapons on base, but the change was not included in the Senate version of the bill. Representative Mac Thornberry and Senator John McCain, who are chairmen of the respective armed-services committees, said on Friday that they intend to add the provision to the final version of the bill. “Long before the Chattanooga attack, we had been working to clarify a post commander’s authority to allow carrying of personal firearms,” they said in a statement. “This year’s National Defense Authorization Act will reflect that work.  Together, we will direct the Pentagon to end the disconnect between the threats our warfighters and their families face and the tools they have to defend themselves.”

Senator Rand Paul said on Monday that he plans to introduce his own legislation as early as this week, according to the Washington Post. “After Major [Nidal] Hasan did the shooting at Fort Hood, we did legislation on arming military on bases,” Paul told reporters. “This was a recruiting station, right? Well, I would include recruiting stations. One of the weird things is that we have 15-20 states where you can open carry. So everybody can carry, except for the military? I think that’s crazy. The rules that apply to everybody should at least apply to the military.”

Whether the Pentagon actually wants to change the policy is another question. On Sunday the military directed recruiting centers nationwide to beef up security measures, and at least six governors signed orders allowing the arming of National Guard troops at military facilities in their state. The Wall Street Journal reports that Defense Secretary Ash Carter has asked military commanders for proposals on improving security at recruitment centers, and Pentagon officials suggested Carter may consider allowing one person to be armed at each facility.

However, just last year the Pentagon said it does not support arming all personnel in bases and recruitment centers, for various reasons. “The first of which is safety,” Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren said. “Another reason is really the prohibitive cost of the training, the qualification requirements, recertification.”

As former Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official Steven P. Bucci explained to the Boston Globe, civilians assume all military personnel are “stone-cold killer weapons experts,” but many haven’t handled a rifle since basic training, and some are never even trained to use a pistol. He said carrying a weapon on a military base “takes a lot of training and a lot of maturity, and I’m not sure it’s a grand idea to have everyone armed.” Plus, many military members live in the surrounding communities, which have varying local laws on carrying firearms. “I think there’s a reasonable justification for reviewing this policy,” he said. “A rule change is probably warranted, but we need to do it in a way that makes sense.”