The Un-Armed Services:
It’s Wrong to Force Troops to Choose Between Defending Themselves and Obeying the Rules.
According to recent reports concerning last week’s tragedy in Chattanooga, two servicemembers — the commanding officer of the Navy Operations Support Center (NOSC) and one of the slain Marines — carried weapons when Mohammad Abdulazeez gunned down their unarmed colleagues. These same reports have pointed out that should this detail prove true, LCDR Timothy White and his fallen brother violated Department of Defense policy by carrying their personal weapons onto the military installation. They were confronted with a sick choice: remain in accordance with current regulations, or use the force necessary to defend themselves and their shipmates. It would be an absolute abdication of leadership to prohibit military personnel from possessing the tools and authority to guard against a similar future attack. To that effect, Congress should empower troops stationed at vulnerable facilities like NOSCs or recruiting offices with the ability to carry firearms for personal and unit defense.
The United States is still at war with ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other transnational terrorist organizations. Just like there are Americans in a targeting cell somewhere at this moment working to take down terrorist training and recruiting sites in Syria, violent radicals are no doubt chomping on the bit to carry out attacks on similar targets inside the U.S. An incident in 2009 similar to last week’s resulted in the death of one soldier and the wounding of another. Operations like these are equally deadly whether conducted by a self radicalized, troubled “loan wolf” or a steely eyed, well-trained operative. After all, their preferred targets — recruiting offices and reserve centers — are lightly, if at all, defended.
The Armed Forces have stepped up security measures in response to the Chattanooga attack. Northern Command, for example, instructed recruiting stations to lock their doors and keep their blinds closed. Marine Corps Recruiting Command, in a decidedly un-Devil Dog fashion, initially ordered its Marines to not wear their uniforms to work and closed all recruiting offices within a 40 mile radius of Chattanooga. Simply put, the Department of Defense’s response to this tragic incident was to run or hide.
Fortunately, Congress would like to take a different approach. The House of Representatives already passed an amendment to their version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that permits servicemembers to carry personal firearms on base. The Senate is in the process of adding such an amendment. Assuming the language survives when both versions are reconciled and the final bill gets signed by the President, Armed Forces personnel will finally have the latitude to protect themselves right? Wrong.
Remember last week’s attack targeted small, undefended installations: the recruiting office you would find in a strip mall or a reserve center in a suburban office building. These are scattered all over the country, embedded in whichever community they serve. Fifty states have fifty different ways of regulating firearms. Sure, some have reciprocity with others when it comes to concealed carry permits. However, even within a state like Massachusetts, the process of issuing concealed carry permits can vary by municipality. While current and former military police officers may be able to get around these restrictions, other servicemembers must currently comply with local gun laws on their way to and from their place of duty. It gets worse if a service member plans on using mass transit to commute to his or her post. Let’s say a sailor is traveling to his reserve duty elsewhere on the east coast via Amtrak. In order to transport a weapon, it must be off his person and checked in a locked container. By the way, checked baggage service is only available between certain stations.
It is difficult for someone to protect themselves with a firearm in and around their place of duty when they have issues getting it there to begin with. This essentially leaves the force protection of military personnel in uniform at the hands of local authorities. Just as the Posse Comitatus Act put law enforcement squarely outside the sphere of the Army, local judges, councilman, and sheriffs should not be responsible for making decisions or allocating resources to the defense of the Armed Forces.
The language in the current bills does not go far enough in this respect. For any change in the law to be effective in securing these more vulnerable installations, it must protect servicemembers from being prosecuted under local gun laws when traveling in uniform to their official duty station. Remember that attack in 2009? Those troops were gunned down outside their recruiting office. No amount of bulletproof glass, locked doors, or drawn shades would have helped them. A firearm might have. Congress should ensure that soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen have the ability to defend themselves wherever they might need to.
Now, there are plenty of legitimate concerns regarding armed services personnel carrying firearms on and off base. Some people point out that with a rise in minimally trained individuals carrying weapons, so comes an increased risk of inadvertent discharge, and friendly fire in the event of an actual firefight. The Navy recruiter that just shot himself in the leg is certainly not helping the counter argument. We all know the military is not a monolith; there are more and less capable people amongst its ranks. Not everyone is an infantryman or special operator, and they cannot be expected to perform to the same level in a combat situation.
Fortunately, this is the military; we have rules and training for everything. Allowing personnel to carry firearms does not necessarily mean that everyone can be armed, all the time. Even this opposing point of view entitled “The Case Against Arming ALL Troops” mentions an exception for those in combat arms, military police, etc. As far as allowing others to carry firearms, new training and regulations should strike a happy medium between force protection and mitigating the risks of a broader weapons carrying policy. Many of us would much rather go through training on how to take down an assailant with a firearm than sit through another GMT regarding the dangers of frying frozen turkeys. In fact, such new segments may make a great addition the Navy’s next iteration of “bystander intervention” training.
Another point opponents of allowing troops to arms themselves make involves the secondary and tertiary effects of having armed military personnel amongst the general public. The more specific concern, as voiced by Commandant of the Marine Corps nominee Lt. Gen. Robert Neller involves armed recruiters’ being denied access to gun-free zones, like high schools, while performing their duties. The aforementioned proposal to shield uniformed troops from local laws could potentially be expanded to apply to similar federal laws in these situations. This is obviously a tricky public relations issue, however Department of Defense leadership should set policies in accordance with the best interest of the service when it comes to engaging prospective recruits. If that means weapons do not accompany recruiters at certain times when engaging the public, then so be it.
More generally, some individuals posit that arming uniformed military personnel in public could lead to them becoming de facto law enforcement agents. This may sound crazy to you, but suppose a service member is armed and in uniform, and sees a crime being committed. It is not unreasonable to think that in that case, said service member may draw his weapon. In that case, you have an armed, agent of the government who happens to be in the military, basically acting in a law enforcement role. Could this eventually lead to a potential violation of Posse Comitatus? What if the servicemember takes a more active role in crime prevention? It becomes easy to imagine greyer situations where line between citizen, soldier, and law enforcement officer becomes even more blurred. Once more, rules, regulations, and training can help mitigate these concerns.
These objections are reasons to carefully implement a responsible personal firearm policy, not reasons to give up on one all together. LCDR Timothy White and his Marine brother seemingly did not wait for the Department of Defense to change its policy when it came to personal firearms on military installations. No one should have to decide between following the rules and taking the precautions necessary to save his life or those of his comrades. Our leadership should allow servicemembers the tools necessary to defend themselves when targeted due to their military status. To not do so would be reckless and most likely have deadly consequences. The enemy knows that most servicemembers who are stateside are not (supposed to be) armed. That is part of the reason the terrorists pick these soft targets. Instead, let’s change their calculus and save American military lives in the process.
About the Author: Chris Morales spent eight years as a Navy F/A-18F Weapons Systems Officer. Having graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2007, he is currently pursuing a JD/MBA at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Wharton School. He and his wife, Elizabeth, both hail from New York and hope to return there in the near future.