Are U.S. Military Bases Soft Targets?

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Changes in the no-guns rule seem unlikely.

On the face of it, the idea of an individual’s attacking a military base seems almost comical — the plot of a low-budget satire or an over-zealous story in a Victorian book for boys. Schoolchildren have a phrase for people who contrive to do what seems impossible: “Yeah, you and whose army?” A school — well, that’s an obvious choice for a deranged killer. A shopping mall or beauty salon likewise. But one of the homes of the strongest military the world has ever seen? Not a great plan. There be soldiers.

But what if the army isn’t armed and the security is thin on the ground? Three times in the past four years, military bases have been the scenes of horrific rampages — once at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C; twice at Fort Hood in Texas, which is home to the much-decorated First Cavalry, among others. On each occasion, gunmen have managed to run riot while servicemen were ordered to “shelter in place” — camouflaged commandos being asked to defend themselves with tables while they waited for the police to arrive. Walk into a church in Texas and open fire, and there’s a good chance you’ll find lead flying back your way within a minute or so; start blasting away in the barracks, and you’ll apparently enjoy carte blanche for a while. Are our installations soft targets?

In the wider gun debate, the NRA’s critics like to taunt the organization, crying that its solution to shootings is always to “give guns to everyone.” For those who have not yet realized that a country with hundreds of millions of firearms, and with a constitutional right to keep and bear them, will inevitably require a different approach than a country with very few, the joke is a funny one, I suppose: “Don’t tell me,” quibblers ask, rolling their eyes, “you want to arm the toddlers?” But in this instance, it’s not so silly, right? Soldiers, after all, are trained to kill. If law-enforcement officers can carry their weapons on and off duty — exempted for life from even the usual concealed-carry rules — isn’t it rather peculiar that military personal are so closely monitored?

A rule issued during the George H. W. Bush administration removed the capacity of individual commanders to set the rules for their bases, establishing in place of the patchwork quilt a single national standard: that while they remain on post, military personnel must be disarmed. Speaking to Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer yesterday morning, House Armed Services Committee chairman Michael McCaul suggested that this idea has outlived its usefulness and called for “a discussion.” “It only takes a few minutes to wound and kill a large number of soldiers,” he noted. “If we had senior leadership armed, just maybe they could have stopped it before it got worse.” Within minutes, a spokesman for the White House, Dan Pfeiffer, made it clear to Schieffer that this was not going to happen.

Given the increasing risk-aversion of the military, Pfeiffer is almost certainly correct in his assessment. Libertarians like to poke at conservatives by observing that the military is the only top-down, rule-conscious, government-run social-engineering project that the self-professed liberty movement confesses to liking. They have a point. “When you sign the contract, you give up a certain number of your rights,” Concerned Veterans for America’s CEO Pete Hegseth tells me. “Should your ability to carry a concealed weapon be one of them? I think that’s an open debate. But it’s not as easy as saying, ‘Well, you can do it out there, therefore you should be able to do it in here.’”

Hegseth continues:

Like you, I am a believer that having more armed people prevents violence like this. However, the command environment and the way that commanders are required to maintain discipline isn’t fully conducive to every young private and every young soldier personally carrying a firearm in every scenario. On post and off-duty time, I wouldn’t be fundamentally opposed to that. But I would acknowledge that it creates new and serious complications for commanders on post. It’s a high-stress environment with a lot of young, hard-charging kids with a lot of bravado. You introduce weapons to that, and it could create problems.

It isn’t just discipline that complicates the question, but suicide too. Two-thirds of all deaths caused by firearms in the United States are deliberately self-inflicted, and veterans and active-duty military personnel are wildly overrepresented in the statistics. The New York Times reported last week that the suicide rate among Israeli solders dropped 40 percent after authorities insisted that officers leave their guns on base before going home for the weekend. With 22 U.S. veterans killing themselves per day, the prospect of arming everybody on base is unlikely to appeal.

Thus far, at least, leaders are staying on the safe side. Indeed, if anything, the prohibitions are being strengthened. After the terrorist attack on Fort Hood in 2009, the facility changed the rules, henceforth requiring soldiers to register their privately owned weapons with their commanders. Similarly, a report issued by the Defense Department in the wake of the shooting at the Navy Yard didn’t even mention the idea of soldiers carrying private arms but made sure to recommend, among other things, that reminders that firearms are prohibited on base be “posted conspicuously” around military installations.

The first Fort Hood attack was carried out by a Muslim extremist who admitted openly at his trial that he was trying to kill as many American soldiers as possible; both the second incident at Fort Hood and the shooting at the Navy Yard seem to have been the work of the mentally unstable. All three were premeditated; none were the product of riots or of spontaneous fights; in all cases, the assailant ran free until authorities showed up. One doesn’t have to want a wholesale change in the regulations to conclude that it’s wishful thinking to believe that signposts will help.

Unsure as he remains about the likelihood of anything being done, Hegseth considers the current situation unsustainable. “You have to arm certain members of the unit at all times,” he says. “You have to be prepared for a contingency like this — and deter one. If the one shot fired by the MP [base police officer] is what caused the shooter to put a bullet in his head, just one or two personnel with the ability to fight back changes the whole situation. Bases are bubbles; you need to trust that you are secure. However we do it, we need to introduce an air of uncertainty — or, rather, certainty that someone will be armed.”

The main gate of Fort Hood is little over three miles from the Texas town of Killeen, a place famous for a grisly massacre of its own. In 1991, a man called George Hennard gunned down 50 unarmed citizens at a Luby’s in Killeen, killing 23 people and injuring 27. One of the survivors, Susanna Hupp, had left a revolver in her car in order to comply with state law and sat helpless while Hennard ran riot. Both of Hupp’s parents were killed. The incident prompted changes in the law, turning Texas into a “shall-issue” state and playing a significant role in the decision of many others to liberalize their strict concealed-carry regulations. Will nearby Fort Hood, which has now been targeted twice, play a similar role in reforming the rules on base? Don’t count on it.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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