Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Basic Misunderstanding of Military's "Gun Free Zone" Policy

Ever since the shootings at two Chattanooga, TN military recruiting facilities, many columnists have again clamored to do away with the supposed "gun free zones" at US military installations.

Despite what many conservative columnists have written, including Smokey Shott of our local paper the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, this policy was actually Department of Defense Directive 5210.56, enacted in 1992 under President George H.W. Bush, and not under the Clinton administration. That policy strictly limits the military and civilian personnel who can carry firearms at military facilities to those in law enforcement or security roles. U.S. bases and recruiting centers have been "gun-free zones" ever since.

Army Regulation 190-14, a policy implemented in 1993 that changed policy regarding carrying firearms on the Army’s military bases, is often cited by conservative writers to cast blame on Clinton. However, that policy specifically notes its purpose is aimed at implementing “applicable portions of Department of Defense Directive 5210.56,” which, as previously stated, was put into effect by Bush Sr.

Contrary to popular belief, our military facilities have never had all personnel walking around armed to the teeth. Steven Bucci, a military expert for The Heritage Foundation who served 28 years in the Army and retired in 2005 with the rank of colonel, told online publication TheBlaze, “I think you are barking up the wrong tree if you are looking to put blame on someone for disarming the military. I think that’s kind of a bogus story. We have never had our soldiers walking around with weapons all the time, other than in combat zones."

Most military sites have dedicated base Department of Defense police and military members like MPs and masters-at-arms with extensive training in armed law enforcement. It's also important to note that in 2011, the Pentagon adopted a military-wide policy 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 states. In other words, rank-and-file personnel can be armed and trained for defense at their commanding officer's discretion.

Shott's column, and many others, reflect a misconception about the average service member’s proficiency with guns, and ignore the reality that armed-forces installations are not “gun-free zones” by any stretch of the imagination. The military has fairly liberal guidelines empowering its commanders to arm members to defend themselves, but those guidelines prioritize personal safety and the high likelihood of gun mishaps over statistically rare tragedies like the Chattanooga shooting.

In another interview, Bucci told the Boston Globe that allowing all military personnel to carry guns is a well-meaning, but naive solution. It “takes a lot of training and a lot of maturity, and I’m not sure it’s a grand idea to have everyone armed."

He also said that while civilians and other outsiders might believe that all military members are weapons experts, that’s simply not the case. In the Army, for example, Bucci said, personnel are taught how to use a rifle in basic training, but after that, the vast majority never handle a rifle again. And, while some service personnel are trained to shoot a pistol, it is not required as broadly as rifle training.

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

Bucci also believes that complications would arise with military personnel traveling to and from bases surrounded by civilian communities where there are restrictions on carrying a weapon. “Today about two-thirds of the military personnel don’t live on military installations. They live in surrounding communities, and we don’t have a national law for carrying weapons,” he said.

Still, Bucci said, perhaps changes could be made to the restrictions, including allowing personnel to carry guns on bases located in states where they are allowed to carry them. “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.”

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 "soft" targets such as the 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 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 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.

The military should consider enacting new measures for low-security facilities, such as stricter access restrictions, adding DoD police, or ordering service members assigned to staff to be trained to carry and use firearms under existing policies.

Ranting that all service members need to be armed on-duty is a great sound bite on television and guaranteed click-bait on websites. But it reflects a lack of understanding of how the military handles armed law enforcement at its facilities, and the actual level of weapons training received by the rank-and-file. Military security experts, and the Pentagon, know better.

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