National Security & Defense

Members of the Military Have a Right to Effective Self-Defense

(Photo: Army Sergeant First Class Michael Sauret)

Since 2008, at least 34 service-members and civilians have died in multiple-casualty shootings at military facilities. Dozens more have been injured. Fort Hood, Little Rock, the Washington Navy Yard, Fort Hood again, and Chattanooga — the names are sadly familiar, with at least three attackers apparently sharing jihadist motivations.

Reading the accounts of these attacks, they tend to share the same, terrible storylines. In each case there’s a deadly lag between the time of the attack and the first police response; in each case trained (but unarmed) warriors either desperately try to scramble to safety or throw themselves at attackers in suicidal, hopeless charges. In only one instance — at Chattanooga — is there evidence that a service-member fired shots in self-defense, and in that case he may have actually defied Department of Defense directives to attempt to save his own life and the lives of others.

It has never made much sense to mandate that America’s military bases and recruiting centers become, in essence, gun-free zones, where our most well-trained men and women live largely under the protection of civilian police. In 1992, when President George H. W. Bush’s administration implemented the policy, American soldiers were under threat from Islamic terrorists as they are now. Today, the nonsensical nature of the policy is just even more obvious, when we know that ISIS, al-Qaeda, and so-called “lone wolf” jihadists are actively seeking to kill American soldiers here at home.

Thankfully, years overdue, the Department of Defense is taking steps to increase security and may at long last allow at least some of our warriors to defend themselves. Last Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter issued a two-page memorandum in response to the “ongoing threat” from the deadly euphemism of the month, “Homegrown Violent Extremists.” In the memo, he noted that existing Pentagon policy includes the “option of additional armed personnel” for “security, law enforcement, and counterintelligence duties.” In other words, there is already some leeway to implement basic security measures (which raises a separate question as to why “additional armed personnel” hadn’t already been deployed). But he went further, directing “all Components to consider any additional protection measures including changes to policies and procedures that protect our force against the evolving threat.” He gave a short timeline, indicating that he wants to review proposals by August 21, in less than three weeks.

Secretary Carter’s memo is a necessary first step, and service chiefs must not be timid in their requests.

Secretary Carter’s memo is a necessary first step toward needed policy change, and service chiefs must not be timid in their requests. We are not advocating turning the military into a supplemental police force. Indeed, the Posse Comitatus Act prohibits using the military for domestic law enforcement. But there is almost no good reason a service-member with a concealed-carry permit should be better-equipped to defend himself at a civilian restaurant than at his military workplace.

Nor is the secretary of defense the only relevant military leader. The governors of at least seven states – Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin — have issued orders empowering their national guardsmen to defend themselves. That leaves 43 more states and hundreds of thousands of citizen-soldiers without sufficient protection. At the very least, each governor should act to protect the forces under their command.

Every member of the military is trained in the use of his weapons, members of the best units in the combat arms train far more thoroughly than civilian police, and many of them have engaged in firefights under the most stressful situations imaginable. Moreover, members of support units are accustomed to constantly carrying weapons when deployed “downrange,” even sleeping with them an arm’s length away (at most). Service-members possesses an individual and collective right of self-defense. In fact, even peacetime rules of engagement in the most benign of postings allow members of our military to defend themselves against hostile acts. And with ISIS vowing to strike American soldiers wherever it can find them, no posting is truly safe.

#related#Our men and women in uniform do not lack for courage. Just ask the family of Captain John Gaffaney, an Army nurse who reportedly died charging Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. Captain Gaffaney did not lack for courage.

He did, however, lack a weapon. Long and bitter experience in war and in law enforcement teach that there is no way to guarantee safety in the face of a determined attacker, and we are under no illusions that more guns will stop every terrorist. But if and when a firefight does break out, a gun can give any member of the military a fighting chance. They deserve at least that, urgently.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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