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Should Military Bases Continue to be 'Gun Free Zones'?

by Wendy Innes, published

It seemed like history was repeating itself on April 2 at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas when once again a soldier-turned-gunman opened fire on his fellow soldiers, killing 3 and injuring 16 more before turning the gun on himself. The incident opened up mental and emotional wounds left by the first shooting incident in 2009, leaving survivors re-traumatized and the rest of America shocked, saddened, and full of questions.

While the investigation is ongoing, many are wondering just why it is that America's military bases are so-called "gun free zones." It seems incredibly counter-intuitive to say that we, as a nation, trust these men and women to handle weapons in order to defend the country and carry out the mission they are given, but they can't be trusted to carry a weapon in accordance with their constitutional rights at home.

"The decision to make military bases 'gun free' was one of Bill Clinton's first acts as president in March of 1993, in order to reduce violent crime on board military installations," said military disability attorney John B. Gately. How effective the policy has been at reducing violent crime is drawn into question given the on-going sexual assault crisis in the military as well as the recent rash of shootings on military bases and one Navy ship.

After nearly 13 years of continuous combat, stories of soldiers coming home with broken bodies and broken minds are all too common and make mental illness the easy scapegoat when tragedies occur, followed quickly by the "blame the gun" ideology. But these high profile shootings seem to have increased just over the last 5 years.

When asked what has changed in the last few years that could have contributed to the increase, Gately said, "not much."

"While soldiers have been pushed to the emotional breaking point by frequent deployments, there is no real common denominator that one can readily identify in these cases," he added.

Mental illness certainly plays a role in these incidents. Obviously no one who is completely stable would go on a shooting rampage. But according to Dr. David Reiss, M.D., the state of mental health care that soldiers are receiving is also contributing to the problem. Reiss, who is currently consulting with the Uniformed Services Program at Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont, said he was recently asked to take a position that would require him to see more than 20 patients in a day.

"What can you do in that time frame per patient beyond getting 'name, rank and serial number?' That's not psychiatry; that's malpractice," he said.

This is the type of substandard mental health care that is rampant in the military as well as the VA. There are simply too many people to care for and not enough time or people to do it.

"Not all violence can be predicted or prevented. Not all pathology can be effectively treated. The vast majority of patients with PTSD and/or depression do NOT become violent," Reiss explained.

However, untreated mental illness seldom ever gets better, especially in soldiers who have endured repeated exposure to the horrors of war. Rather, when left untreated, the soldiers mental health deteriorates until the slightest perceived wrong causes them to snap. This is reportedly the case with the most recent Fort Hood shooter.

According to a Department of Defense spokesman, there are a number of reasons why military bases are still gun free zones, even in the wake of multiple shooting incidents.

"DoD does not support arming all personnel," he said. "We hold this position for many reasons. Some of the top reasons are safety concerns, the prohibitive costs of use-of-force and weapons training, qualification costs, and compliance with various weapons screening laws."

The spokesman cited the Lautenberg Amendment as an example of screening laws. Yet, when pressed about why those who lived in family housing on military bases were allowed to have their personal weapons under that amendment, provided that those weapons are registered with base police, he said there are provisions in place that allow residents of military installations to own and store guns. However, these provisions do not allow them to carry these weapons.

"I do want to point out that installation commanders have the authority to arm additional personnel (with government weapons) based on necessity as long as they can meet the requirements of Department of Defense Directive 5210.56," he added.

In the week since the shooting took place, multiple stories have emerged of soldiers who felt helpless as they could do nothing more than "shelter in place." One soldier, First Lieutenant Patrick Cook, put those feelings into words for Texas lawmakers, though state lawmakers are powerless to change policy on a military installation.

"Stripped of my God-given Right to arm myself, the only defensive posture I had left was to lie prostrate on the ground, and wait to die," Cook wrote.

Cook went on to describe how he and 14 of his fellow troops were attempting to barricade a door against a "madman with a .45 pistol," when one of his troops was fatally wounded and would die while waiting for rescue to arrive:

"Through what I can only describe as a miracle, he somehow found enough strength to continue pushing against that door until the shooter gave up and went elsewhere, at which time he collapsed. Nearly a week later, I can still taste his blood in my mouth from when I and my comrades breathed into his lungs for 20 long minutes while we waited for a response from the authorities. This Soldier’s name was Sergeant First Class Daniel Ferguson, and his sacrifice loaned me the rest of my life to tell this story."

Cook told Texas Senate Committee on Constitutional Carry of the helplessness he felt in reaching for a weapon, but finding none on his belt.

"It is beneath human dignity to experience the utter helplessness I felt that day. I cannot abide the thought that anyone should ever feel that again," he said.

"To anyone suggesting that they are not safe on a military installation, I would say that installation commanders take the physical security of their installations, and more importantly their personnel, very seriously," the DoD spokesman said when asked about the reports of troops feeling helpless to defend themselves.  "These commanders employ a multitude of tools, tactics, and resources in order to understand threats, review vulnerabilities, and identify priorities in order to protect the lives and property they are responsible for."

"Furthermore, the Department of Defense has invested a tremendous amount of resources, time, and energy to ensure the right lessons were learned after the tragic shooting at Fort Hood in 2009, and we have made significant progress in updating our force protection policies while improving information sharing, emergency response, and support to DoD healthcare providers."

However, there are those who disagree with the Pentagon's position.

"What we know from incarcerated prisoner interviews is that people intent on any violent action are much less likely to do so if they have any doubts about the ability of victims to strike back," says Guy Smith of the Gun Facts Project. "Someone in a violent rage (assuming it is not chemically induced) also takes this into consideration. Thus, gun free zones have removed what some criminologists call the uncertainty principle. In short, the assailant knows they will not receive return fire from victims, and thus has little to lose."

The same sentiment is echoed by Brandon Maye, owner of the security consulting firm, Practical Applications, LLC, and a former U.S. Army military police officer. "I believe service members should be allowed to conceal carry their personal firearms on any installation in the United States if they are properly licensed to do so in whatever state that military installation happens to be."

"These men and women are trained annually on the proper use and handling of their individually-assigned, government-issued weapons. They are asked to carry their individually-assigned weapons 24/7 while deployed to a combat zone and stationed at a Contingency Operating Base. They are trusted to handle those weapons without fail. Yet, when they return home they aren't trusted to handle their personally-owned weapons on a stateside military installation even if properly licensed by the state in which they reside."

No matter how someone personally feels about guns, the fact is that whenever the tragedy of a mass shooting happens, the bad guy had little regard for human life, let alone the firearm laws already in place.

"The one thing we can conclude is that gun free zones aren't … the shooter was always armed," Smith concluded.

Photo Credit: Karen Kozub / Texas Tribune

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