As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump vowed to use his executive authority to immediately scrap a longstanding rule that bars military personnel from carrying their own firearms on bases and at recruiting centers. Late last week, the Department of Defense took its own steps to loosen restrictions on private gun carry in new rules issued by the Pentagon.
A November 18 directive, approved by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, says base commanders “may grant permission” to department personnel who ask to carry a privately owned firearm “for a personal protection purpose not related to performance of an official duty or status.” The rule extends to openly carried or concealed weapons but does not go as far as the blanket authorization that Trump seemed to proffer.
The directive, first reported by Military.com, overhauls a rule imposed under President George H.W. Bush in 1992 that barred civilians and military personnel who are not on security duty or part of a law enforcement investigation from carrying guns on military sites.
Under the new policy, a base or facility’s top brass can give permission to troop members wishing to carry a firearm, provided they meet certain criteria. To be cleared for private carry, personnel must be at least 21 years old; have a record clear of disciplinary issues or criminal records; and comply with all federal, state, and local gun laws. The directive states that personnel authorized to carry a firearm must “acknowledge they may be personally liable” for injuries, death, or property damage caused in connection with a gun.
“This does not mean that just because someone is in the military, they automatically have a right to carry a weapon,” said U.S. Army Major Jamie Davis, a Department of Defense spokesman.
Whether service members should be allowed to carry weapons on base became a point of contention after several high profile rampage shootings targeting military installations, starting with the 2009 attack on Fort Hood, Texas. After a gunman killed five people last June at a Navy Reserve center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, several Republican presidential candidates, and many Republican members of Congress, including House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, embarked on a renewed push to loosen rules regarding firearms on bases.
The issue became a rallying cry for Trump on the campaign trail. At a January stop in Burlington, Vermont, he promised to “get rid of gun-free zones on schools, and — you have to — and on military bases” on his first day in office.
The National Rifle Association, which did not respond to a request for comment, was one of the former policy’s harshest critics. “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,” said Chris Cox, the gun group’s chief lobbyist.
Despite the pressure, senior Department of Defense and military officials have resisted calls to loosen gun policies on bases.
“Arming our people on our military bases and allowing them to carry concealed privately owned weapons — I do not recommend that as a course of action,” Lieutenant General Mark Milley, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff who served as the commanding general at Fort Hood, said at an April hearing on Capitol Hill.
The National Defense Authorization bill for 2016, which passed last year, instructed the Department of Defense to create a process under which base commanders “may authorize” Armed Forces members to carry weapons. The bill says commanders can allow service members to “carry an appropriate firearm on the installation, center, or facility if the commander determines that carrying such a firearm is necessary as a personal or force-protection measure.”
Claude Chafin, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, attributed the Pentagon’s rule change to the defense authorization bill’s requirement. “We directed them to do it by December 1,” Chafin said.
Some service members caution that the introduction of personal firearms at bases could put military personnel at risk for injury. Chris Jones, 25, a former marine corporal who was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, tells The Trace that he remembers many situations in which his fellow marines were drunk on the weekends and roughhousing in the barracks.
“I’m sure there are going to be a lot of guys who are happy about it because firearms are such a part of the culture. But I don’t think it’s a good idea,” says Jones. “I can see a lot of situations that would have been a lot more dangerous with a gun introduced.”
Additional reporting by Brian Freskos
[Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel]