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Why Military Security Experts Know That Arming More Troops Is Not the Answer

Most armed service members are not trained to neutralize active shooters, and putting more loaded guns in their hands creates its own risks.

The argument that all military service members should be armed with guns to protect themselves — proffered by GOP presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump in the wake of the shooting deaths of four Marines and a sailor last week in Chattanooga, Tennessee — is so basic that there’s not much argument to it at all. Railing against “gun-free zones” last Friday, Trump summed the case up in this way: “This sick guy had guns and shot them down. These are decorated people. These are people who could have handled guns very easily. They would have had a good chance if they had a gun.” In making their cases, the presidential hopefuls echoed a Connecticut car repairman whose shop is near a military recruiting office, who told the Associated Press that arming its occupants made perfect sense to him. “Most of them are trained infantrymen,” the repairman asserted. “That definitely would make it a lot more safe.” They’re military, they know how to use guns, how could we not have every one of them be armed all the time, just in case?

The argument is intuitive enough for a political sound bite — and, like many sound bites, does not hold up well under fact-checking. It reflects a basic misconception about the average military member’s proficiency with guns, and it flat-out misses the reality that armed-forces installations are not “gun-free zones” by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, the military has fairly liberal guidelines empowering its commanders to arm members to defend themselves. It’s just that those guidelines prioritize personal safety and the high likelihood of gun mishaps over statistically rare tragedies like the Chattanooga shooting.

Most service members — 99 percent of airmen, 88 percent of sailors, and about two-thirds of soldiers and Marines — are not in direct combat roles, but instead are technical workers whose specialties support those “tip of the spear” troops. These include navigators, supply clerks, water purification specialists, and camera crews. Roughly the same breakdown applies to the backgrounds of recruiters and reservists. Practically speaking, this means that your average military member’s firearms experience may only go as far as some boot camp familiarization with a service rifle on a “static range,” plinking at paper targets to qualify for a marksmanship ribbon. Some services are more stringent than others — “every Marine is a rifleman,” the old saw goes, but even most Marines only qualify annually in the narrow realm of target marksmanship, not tactical handgunning or law enforcement uses of firearms. Civilians may believe that all members of the military are “stone-cold killer weapons experts” — but their files say otherwise, as former Army Special Forces officer and Pentagon official Steven P. Bucci told the Boston Globe.

The upshot is that your average service member is more qualified than most civilians to handle guns, but no more qualified to neutralize an active shooter than the average professional mechanic is to race the Daytona 500.

And they don’t need to be, because most military sites have dedicated base Department of Defense police and military members like MPs and masters-at-arms who specialize in armed law enforcement. (Yes: Recruiting stations and reserve stations are often exceptions — but there are reasons for that, about which more below.) On top of those dedicated security troops, rank-and-file service personnel still can be armed and trained for defense, if their commanding officer deems it necessary. As part of its broader antiterrorism and security standards, the Pentagon adopted a military-wide policy in 2011 for designating and drilling members to carry guns for service-related security purposes. Those service members “shall be appropriately armed and have the inherent right to self-defense,” the policy starts.

The result of all of the above: Hardly any military office meets the definition of a “gun-free zone,” but every military office does observe strict discipline on gun use. “Arming DoD personnel with firearms shall be limited and controlled,” the policy states, limiting armaments to “qualified personnel” — those who apply and qualify to carry weapons, then undergo special training — “when required for assigned duties and there is reasonable expectation that DoD installations, property, or personnel lives or DoD assets will be jeopardized if personnel are not armed.” When determining if those conditions are met, commanders are required to consider “the possible consequences of accidental or indiscriminate use of those arms.”

Your average service member is more qualified than most civilians to handle guns, but no more qualified to neutralize an active shooter than the average professional mechanic is to race the Daytona 500.

Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno alluded to that policy when asked whether more soldiers should be armed in the wake of the Chattanooga murders. “Personally, my initial thought of that is, does that cause more problems than it solves?” he said. “I think we have to be careful about over-arming ourselves, and I’m not talking about where you end up attacking each other.” He emphasized concerns about “accidental discharges and everything else that goes along with having weapons that are loaded that causes injuries.”

That’s no idle worry: Even among highly experienced combat Marines, injury-causing firearms mishaps occur all the time. The day after the Chattanooga attack, a Navy recruiter shot himself in the leg with his own pistol in a Georgia recruiting center. The AP reported that the sailor accidentally shot himself while holstering the .45 and “discussing the Tennessee shootings with one of his recruits.”

And though Odierno was careful to spotlight accidents over deliberate violence, he is personally familiar with all-too-common fatal shootings committed by soldiers. He was running the Iraq war effort from a Baghdad base in spring 2009 when an Army sergeant on the same installation used an M-16 to kill five other soldiers. The sergeant had been under psychological evaluation but managed to disarm the guard watching him and use that weapon in the murders — on a complex where thousands of “green-suiters” were required to carry their firearms at all times.

That’s to say nothing of other shootings — such as the 2013 Navy Yard murders or multiple fatal killings at Fort Bragg, home of the Army’s airborne and special forces — perpetrated by the very same uniformed and civilian military personnel that conservatives seek to arm. Dating back to 1994, there had been 20 shootings on or around military installations before the Chattanooga tragedy. All of them were committed by disgruntled uniformed or civilian military workers. As one Navy training brief on active-shooter situations points out: “Most attackers had no history of prior violent or criminal behavior.”

Beyond the practical concerns about an increase in accidents and criminal killings, military planners have another reason to be sanguine about arming service members en masse: It poses an inherent risk to civil liberties in the United States. Since the late 1800s, the Posse Comitatus Act has limited the federal government’s ability to use military members to carry out domestic law enforcement duties. It originated in the rollback of Reconstruction-era policing of the South, but since then, the law has been widely praised as a safeguard against federal martial law on the streets of America. Second Amendment advocates who often defend personal firearms ownership as a check against government abuse and tyranny would likely be among the first Americans to criticize arming domestic military members wholesale in the name of “security.”

The military has said that it will review security standards in the aftermath of last week’s killings, and there is plenty of action that can be taken. Since Fort Hood, deadly attacks have focused on softer military-connected targets such as last week’s Chattanooga facilities. But that “softness” has less to do with these sites being unarmed than it does with their accessibility. The Navy Yard shooting occurred not in the military headquarters itself, but a lesser-known support facility staffed mostly by civilians. Entry to reserve facilities, which are far smaller and less sensitive than major bases, is generally less restricted than entry to their larger counterparts. Recruiting offices — the workplaces of a small percentage of total military personnel — are by design located mostly in open suburban locales like shopping malls and retail strips where they can lure more foot traffic from potential enlistees. If the military is looking for better “force protection,” it will have to consider prioritizing these low-security facilities for sensible new measures, like greater access restrictions, structural hardening, and adding DoD police — or ordering one or more of the service members assigned to staff to be trained to carry and use firearms under existing policies.

But arming all military workers everywhere is not one of those sensible new measures. At best, it’s the gut feeling of a car repairman in Connecticut and the political stumpers that pander to him; at worst, it’s the xenophobic expression of pathos by conservative chickenhawks. One of their more ornery (or, possibly, more honest) spokesmen, actor and right-wing activist James Woods, displayed the latter sensibility on Twitter last week. “Chattanooga exposes AGAIN several liberal fallacies,” he wrote. “‘Gun free zones’ are ‘safe’; military shouldn’t be armed; POTUS cares about military.”

This is a particular gun-loving, Islam-fearing ideology taken to its logical conclusion. By this logic, every inch of public space in America is an active battleground, and every American who opposes the militarization of that space (including war-worn Army brass like Odierno) hates America and its troops. It is precisely the sort of emotional argument for a perpetual combat footing that shouldn’t be mixed with lethal weaponry, proffered by precisely the sort of sideline sitters who would never take part in the war. Actual military security experts know better.

[Photo: Flickr user Gilbert Mercier]