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Controversy over officer in Chattanooga shooting: Should Pentagon change policy?

A senior officer who used his personal firearm to shoot back at the Chattanooga attacker is unlikely to face criminal charges. But what some see as a disconnect between a Pentagon investigation and what many call heroism points to the rapid shift on the ground at military installations.

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    A sailor plays Taps after the burial service for Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith Tuesday, July 28, 2015, at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tenn. Smith was one of five military personnel who were fatally shot July 16, when a gunman attacked two military facilities in Chattanooga. The Pentagon has since faced pressure to adjust its weapons policy to changing threats on the ground, including serious attacks by lone wolf terrorists.
    Angela Lewism Foster/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP/File
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United States law largely protects legal gun owners who use their personal firearms to rebuff potentially deadly attacks.

The military, however, has different rules.

After the July 16 attack on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Pentagon is looking into whether a senior officer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim White, broke protocol by using his personal weapon to fire back at a domestic terrorist who killed four Marines and one sailor.

The main thrust of the investigation, officials told Fox News, is to try to determine whether the decision to return fire by at least two military personnel, including Lieutenant Commander ​White, contributed to the chaos.

It’s not clear if White’s bullets were the ones that killed the attacker.

Over the weekend, concern erupted mainly among conservatives that White would face charges stemming from illegally discharging a firearm on federal property.

To be sure, Pentagon officials told The Washington Post it is highly unlikely that White would face any criminal charges for a role that many Americans have hailed as heroic. A possible scenario is that the Navy could feasibly honor White for his valor while still putting a non-punitive letter in his file, according to the Post.

But the call that he “deserves a medal, not an indictment,” in the words of former Sen. Jim Webb, has highlighted pressure on the Pentagon to change its weapons policy to adjust to changing threats on the ground, including serious attacks by lone wolf terrorists inspired by the ideology of extremists. 

That seeming disconnect – hero versus potential rule-breaker – may have a lot to do with the rapidity of an emerging threat and what it means to soldiers stationed in places with “soft” security, says John Cohen, senior adviser of the Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“The idea that you can have individuals who are inspired by what they see on social media and feel a connection to an ideological cause, but operate independently from any terrorist organization, that’s not what our capability was designed to pick up on,” Mr. Cohen says.

Loosening firearms regulations for soldiers at recruiting stations is one option to fix that security gap, some critics say, giving more operational leeway to on-the-ground troops to fire back if fired upon. 

That tack is warranted, says Cohen, who suggests that potentially arming soldiers is but a small part of the change in thinking and strategy the Pentagon needs to formulate to protect troops stationed at home.

“If you have personnel that feel unsafe because of their understanding of the threat, and they’re to the point where they’re willing to bring in their own weapons, that suggests by itself that we need to reevaluate security around those locations,” says Cohen, who is also a former counterterror coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, where he focused on domestic threats. “This new element of threat is very different from what we were dealing with just two years ago, and it doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional way we think about terrorist threats.”

The military is already beginning a reassessment in the wake of the Chattanooga attack. Last week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered the Pentagon to review its security policies at “soft” military installations like the ones targeted by Muhammad Abdulazeez.

While the Army beefed up security at many bases after a 2009 Ford Hood attack, in which 13 unarmed troops were killed, recruiting stations largely had refrained from adding fortress-like safeguards, in an effort maintain their mission to welcome the public.

The rule limiting weapon-carry at recruiting stations and other installations came out of concerns in the late 1980s and early 1990s about soldiers turning guns on each other. They also stem from deeper legal concerns and sensitivities around Posse Comitatus, which prevents the Army from carrying out armed military operations inside the US.

“Throughout military history, there has always been a tension at the command levels, especially in peace time, where on the one hand they say don’t get in trouble, just follow the procedures, don’t take risks, don’t improvise, just do it by the book, and that’ll help your career,” says Dave Kopel, a Second Amendment expert and research director at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Denver. “On the other hand, there’s the imperative that when you’re fighting, you can’t always do everything by the book, you have to improvise, and you have to allow responsible decisionmaking at lower levels. When you’re at war, you have to operate that way.”

Since 1994, the US has seen 20 attacks by soldiers or civilian military workers in and around Army bases

The two facilities that Abdulazeez attacked last month were both unguarded. Authorities so far have said they have not identified a link between the young man and any terrorist organization.

The way Pentagon rules are written now aren’t about creating gun-free zones for soldiers, but instead are geared toward strict discipline around firearms. 

The Department of Defense policy states that gun-carry can be approved “when required for assigned duties [where] there is reasonable expectation that DoD installations, property or personnel lives or DoD assets will be jeopardized if personnel are not armed.” Commanders are also required to take into consideration the danger of “accidental or indiscriminate” use of weapons on base.

"I think we have to be careful about over-arming ourselves, and I'm not talking about where you end up attacking each other," Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, told reporters recently. Instead, he said, it's more about "accidental discharges and everything else that goes along with having weapons that are loaded that causes injuries."

Indeed, military officials point to an incident near Atlanta in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when a recruiter shot himself in the leg while showing his personal weapon to a recruit as they discussed what happened in Chattanooga.

However, the incoming Army chief of staff, Gen. Mike Milley, last week opened the door to potential changes in the policy.

“I think under certain conditions on both military installations and recruiting stations we should seriously consider it,” General Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently. “In some cases, I think, it’s appropriate.

A petition calling for President Obama to recognize White and others who fired back at the attacker has garnered more than 21,000 signatures on the White House website. If the petition gets 100,000 signatures by Aug. 28, the Obama White House, according to the site, will respond.

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