Former senior military officers who are sharpshooters and have served in high government posts are urging caution in the wake of calls in Congress and beyond to arm domestic service members following last week’s deadly rampage in Tennessee.
In the days since a Kuwaiti-born gunman, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, shot up a Chattanooga military recruiting center and then killed four Marines and a sailor at a Navy Reserve center in the city, lawmakers have pushed legislation to allow all personnel on bases inside the United States to carry weapons.
Weapons were barred from military bases under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. The prohibition was drafted by aides to his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
“It is clear that our military personnel have become targets, not just abroad but on American soil as well,” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Tennessee Republican who introduced a bill Monday to remove the two-decade-long ban. “Therefore, they must be given the tools to defend themselves.”
Some governors are not waiting for Congress. From Florida to Texas and North Carolina, chief executives in at least six states have authorized their National Guard units to be armed, moved them to fortified armories or taken other steps to increase security.
“They need to be safe, and they need to be armed,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott told CNN in explaining his decision to move National Guard recruiters from six storefront sites into armories and to allow all full-time guardsmen to carry weapons.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed the five military services to give him recommendations for beefing up security at their installations. In the meantime, he ordered Marines to stop wearing their uniforms at recruiting centers, which are especially soft military targets because many are located in shopping centers and other places easily accessible to civilians.
You don’t see a lot of push among active duty people to arm themselves. They’re not expert marksmen.
Charles Stimson, retired Navy
“Obviously, force protection everywhere around the world, abroad and now at home, is a big priority for us at the department and will continue to be,” Carter told reporters flying with him Sunday to Tel Aviv for the start of a Middle East tour.
But carrying weapons faces surprising opposition – from senior military leaders themselves.
“I think we have to be careful about over-arming ourselves, and I’m not talking about where you end up attacking each other,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters last week. The danger of too many weapons include “accidental discharges and everything else that goes along with having weapons that are loaded that causes injuries.”
Retired Navy Capt. Charles Stimson, who served 23 years as a military judge, lawyer and prosecutor and is now head of the national security law program at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, also thinks allowing service personnel to carry weapons on base is a bad idea.
“I’m a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment, as are most of my brothers and sisters in the military,” Stimson, who held the civilian post of deputy assistant defense secretary in charge of detainee policy under President George W. Bush, told McClatchy on Monday. “Yet you don’t see a lot of push among active duty people to arm themselves.”
“They’re not expert marksmen,” Stimson said. “They don’t have the annual requirement to qualify on a shooting range like a (Navy) SEAL would or a Green Beret or a Marine.”
Of the five military services, only the Marine Corps requires every member to qualify as a rifleman, in part because Marines provide security at U.S. embassies and other American facilities around the world.
The other four services provide only basic weapons training to most of their members, providing combat-level training only to those who are headed to war zones.
In the Army, by far the largest service, only 5 percent of soldiers obtain an expert badge, the highest rating. For the rest, their jobs don’t require such high proficiency or they lack the necessary skills.
“You have a vast cadre of people in the military – doctors, lawyers, intelligence specialists, cryptologists, mechanics – whose jobs are important because they support combat troops, but it is not their job to point weapons at people and kill them,” Stimson said. “I know JAGs (military lawyers), nurses, typists, legal clerks in the military who have never fired a weapon in their lives.”
Retired Navy Cmdr. Rick Nelson, now a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, served as a helicopter pilot and later held senior national security posts under the younger Bush.
Nelson qualified as a Navy rifle sharpshooter, the service’s second-highest weapons rating. To him, arming all domestic service members would be an exaggerated response to the shootings in Chattanooga.
“These instances are terribly tragic, but given how many military installations and recruiting stations there are, they are pretty low in numbers,” he told McClatchy. “And arming all individuals to stop these low-probability events is not going to produce the intended result.”
Arming all individuals to stop these low-probability events is not going to produce the intended result.
Rick Nelson, retired Navy sharpshooter
In fact, Nelson said, such a policy could produce unintended consequences with bad outcomes. He pointed to the Washington Navy Yard shootings as an example.
In that Sept. 16, 2013, assault, Aaron Alexis, a civilian contract computer expert with security access to the Navy Yard, fatally shot 12 people there and wounded three others before police killed him.
“Would you want all of the employees there getting ready to shoot?” Nelson asked. “Now the onus is on each one of them to identify who the actual shooter is. How do you know who is the bad guy and who is one of my co-workers trying to stop the bad guy? It takes an already complicated and dangerous situation and makes it more complicated and dangerous.”
Even service members with combat training and experience, Nelson said, might not be able to handle such a situation properly.
“Training a Marine for combat in Iraq is very different from training a police officer to use force appropriately,” he said. “Conflating those two scenarios – putting a combat-trained military person into a law-enforcement situation – is not going to produce the results we want.”
Better than arming domestic military personnel, Nelson would rather see changes such as hiring security to guard recruiting centers, installing bulletproof glass, strengthening buildings and making them more resilient to gunshots or explosives.