From Texas to Virginia to Arizona to Wisconsin, it keeps happening. Armed civilians are stepping in to stand watch outside military recruiting centers in an effort to protect the service members inside.
The phenomenon is driven by the attack in Chattanooga, Tenn., last week, in which Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, 24, opened fire on a recruiting station and the naval reserve support center several miles away. No one was killed at the recruiting center, but Marine Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40; Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, 35; Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist; Lance Cpl. Squire D. “Skip” Wells, 21; and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26; at the reserve center were killed.
The attack, in which Abdulazeez unloaded dozens of rounds in both locations, has underscored the vulnerability of small U.S. military facilities and prompted calls for the military to arm its recruiters for their own protection. In most cases, only military police and other investigators are allowed to carry weapons while Stateside on U.S. military facilities — an issue that is brought up each time a gunman attacks unarmed service members.
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, President Obama’s nominee to become the next chief of staff of the Army, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he is open to recruiters being armed in some cases.
“I think under certain conditions, both on military bases and in out stations — recruiting stations, reserve centers — that we should seriously consider it, and in some cases I think it’s appropriate,” Milley said, speaking at his confirmation hearing.
But the general added that it’s legally complicated — and that’s what the services are sorting through now. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter called for recommendations to improve protection, with results due soon.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, said the Defense Department examined arming more military personnel, civilians and retirees at military facilities following the 2009 attack on Fort Hood, Tex., in which 13 people were killed and 30 more were wounded. The Pentagon reviewed the policy again during the review of the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting, in which 12 people were killed and three were wounded, Henderson said.
The Pentagon’s policy restricting U.S. service members dates back decades. The latest directive on it is dated April 1, 2011, and states that arming Defense Department personnel with firearms “shall be limited and controlled” while Stateside, unlike overseas deployments.
“Qualified personnel shall be armed 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,” the directive said. “Evaluation of the necessity to arm DoD personnel shall be made with the consideration of the possible consequences of accidental or indiscriminate use of those arms. However, the overriding factors in determining whether or not to arm are the mission and threat.
“Arming DoD personnel (i.e., administrative, assessment, or inspection, not regularly engaged in or directly supervising security or law enforcement activities) shall be limited to missions or threats and the immediate need to protect DoD assets or persons’ lives,” the directive continues. “DoD Components have the discretion to keep designated staff personnel qualified and available or on call to perform duties.”
That directive can be changed by the Pentagon or adapted to suit its current needs. It has similarities to the 1992 version issued during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, and an earlier one released in 1969, Henderson said. That would appear to give Carter leeway to arm more service members at military installations on federal property like Fort Hood. But it’s unclear what the military can do for recruiters. They commonly work out of commercially leased office space, and must adhere to state laws when it comes to carrying weapons in public.
Those laws vary state to state, as a guide released by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives details. All states allow gun owners to carry some form of concealed weapon, but licensing and permitting can be drastically different. Openly carrying a firearm is only allowed in a handful of states.
There also are a variety of laws prohibiting weapons from being brought to schools, college campuses and other gun-free zones — locations recruiters frequent regularly.
In response to the issue, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R.-Calif.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R.-Mont.) introduced legislation Monday that would permit the Pentagon to authorize one service member at each recruiting facility to carry a service-issue sidearm to protect themselves and others while on duty, superseding other laws. The legislation also would authorize the secretary to implement other security measures, something that could include adding bulletproof glass or adding locked doors at which visitors must be buzzed in.
“We’re getting to the point where these soft targets are becoming bigger targets for radicals, terrorists and straight up nutjobs,” said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter. “So why not give the military that enhanced protection?”
The legislation is called the Securing Military Personnel Response Firearm Initiative Act, or SEMPER FI Act. That’s an allusion to the Latin saying adopted by the Marine Corps, “Always faithful.” The bill is specific that recruiters carrying weapons are not to be used for law enforcement, which would violate the Posse Comitatus Act that limits the federal government’s ability to use the military to control civilians.
Other legislators, including Sen. Ron Johnson (R.-Wis.), Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R.-Tex.) have also called for the Pentagon to do more to protect troops while Stateside.
“Long before the Chattanooga attack, we had been working to clarify a post commander’s authority to allow carrying of personal firearms,” McCain and Thornberry said in a joint statement. “This year’s National Defense Authorization Act will reflect that work. Together, we will direct the Pentagon to end the disconnect between the threats our war fighters and their families face and the tools they have to defend themselves.”