Pentagon a quiet force in gun-control debate. What does it want?

The Pentagon has already successfully taken on the NRA over a pro-gun congressional measure that it didn't like. Now some retired officials are speaking out in the gun-control debate.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, seen here at his retirement ceremony in Washington in 2010, has questioned the need for civilians to have military-style assault rifles.

Even as President Obama announced sweeping gun-control initiatives Wednesday, one little-discussed contingent has been quietly influencing the debate behind the scenes: current and former US military commanders.

US military officials have already been successful in reversing one initiative backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) on Capitol Hill, which they worried could have a dangerous impact on US troops. Now, some prominent retired military officials are backing the administration's calls for "responsible gun ownership," including limits on military-style assault weapons.

Given their background, active and retired US military often have significant credibility in the gun-rights debate – both in Congress and among the general public.

“I do think retired military officers have a bit more weight than, no offense, the stereotypical ‘knee-jerk New England liberals' do,” says retired Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a psychiatrist and former mental health adviser to the Army surgeon general. “We’ve got credibility, we’ve worn the uniform, we’ve carried weapons. I like to go to the range and shoot – we’re not anti-weapon, per se.”

Earlier this month, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who served as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan and before that as head of the elite Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees US Navy SEAL and Delta Force missions, said that there is no reason for most Americans to have military-grade weapons.

“I spent a career carrying typically either a M16, and later a M4 carbine,” he told MSNBC. “And a M4 carbine fires a .223 caliber round – which is 5.56 millimeters – at about 3,000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It’s designed to do that. That’s what our soldiers ought to carry.”

He added, “I personally don't think there's any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America. I believe that we've got to take a serious look – I understand everybody's desire to have whatever they want – but we have to protect our children and our police and we have to protect our population. And I think we have to take a very mature look at that."

Military commanders have not been shy about taking on pro-gun laws that they see as detrimental to their troops. For more than a year, they pushed Congress to change the language of a measure that prevented commanders from talking to their troops about weapons that they might be keeping at home. 

These were conversations that commanders wanted to have as the suicide rate among US troops was rising amid a decade of war. More US troops now die as a result of suicide than in battle.

“A majority of [suicides] have two things in common – alcohol and a gun,” said retired Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli last year, when he was the No. 2 officer in the US Army. “And when you have somebody that you in fact feel is high risk, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to tell that individual that it would not be a good idea to have a weapon around the house.”

In December, lawmakers voted to change the language to clearly allow commanders to talk with troops about firearms.

Dr. Ritchie's research has led her to deeper questions about guns and troop safety. She says troops are often at risk of harming themselves and others because of the easy access they have to firearms, both on base and at gun stores off-base. 

As part of a team investigating military bases with escalating suicide rates, Ritchie found that one factor common to all these installations “is that they are in states with relatively permissive gun laws.”  

She advocates for more gun safety education for troops. “I talk about things that I think might work,” she says. “I know it’s obviously a very emotionally charged issue, so I don’t use the term ‘gun control’ but ‘responsible gun ownership.’ ”

On Thursday, as President Obama was announcing new gun-control proposals – including a ban on assault weapons – Ritchie and McChrystal said that the conversation on weapons in America needs to continue. “I think it has gained a lot more traction now,” Ritchie says. “But there’s a lot further to go.”

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