To some Americans, it’s a troubling irony in the wake of another shooting at the Fort Hood Army base: America’s largest repositories of soldiers and weapons are essentially gun-free zones where the standard GI is allowed to carry a gun only by special permission from a commander.
It’s that zone that Fort Hood officials say US Army Spc. Ivan Lopez targeted on Wednesday as he began a shooting spree that left three fellow soldiers dead and 16 injured.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing people fleeing buildings and jumping fences to get away from the barrage of gunfire. It wasn’t until a Fort Hood Military Police officer raised her gun toward Mr. Lopez that the spree ended, with the 34-year-old enlisted man taking his own life.
The instinct when it comes to guns on base is to defer to Army brass, who remain more concerned that troop-on-troop fistfights would turn deadly than that a rare mass shooting will take place.
But gun rights proponents, as they did with the 2009 Fort Hood massacre and the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting, are citing this week's tragedy at Fort Hood as a reason to discuss, and potentially legislate, how to mitigate the potent nexus of mental health and guns in America.
To that end, they’re pushing for a dramatic change: that the Pentagon should rewrite its base gun-carry rules to let soldiers carry personal weapons on base. One such attempt, the proposed Safe Military Bases Act, may gain steam as a result the shooting, especially after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted in the aftermath that “something’s not working.”
“The problem here, and with Fort Hood, the prior Nidal Hasan case, was that [soldiers] couldn’t defend themselves because they were not allowed to carry weapons,” Rep. Mike McCaul (R) of Texas told Politico. “So I think the policymakers, Congress, we need to revisit this procedure, this policy, to see if we should arm them so they can better protect themselves.”
The debate over whether soldiers should be able to carry firearms on base is intense in a country reeling from a string of mass shootings, and where Second Amendment rights clash with the idea held by many Americans that more guns equal more mayhem.
The US Army has at least since the Vietnam War era controlled gun-carry by soldiers on base.
On Feb. 25, 1992, a Pentagon directive formalized those local base rules, stating that, “It is DOD policy: To limit and control the carrying of firearms by DOD military and civilian personnel. The authorization to carry firearms shall be issued only to qualified personnel when there is a reasonable expectation that life or DOD assets will be jeopardized if firearms are not carried.”
The directive points out that the need to carry a firearm will be weighed against “the possible consequences of accidental or indiscriminate use of firearms.”
Spc. Lopez, who had legally purchased the .45 caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol he used during Wednesday's shooting, was violating that directive when he brought the gun on base. Lopez, whom Army officials say had struggled with anxiety, depression, and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder, had reportedly been upset that the Army gave him just one day off to attend his mother’s funeral. Moreover, Fort Hood military officials say Lopez, an Army truck driver, engaged in some kind of quarrel with a fellow soldier shortly before the shooting began.
“Good soldiers obey the rules against carrying guns,” writes John Lott, author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” whose son is a Fort Hood soldier. “But instead of making places safer, disarming them leaves them sitting ducks while those who want to do harm seek out venues where they don’t have to worry about victims defending themselves. With just two exceptions, every public mass shooting in the USA since at least 1950 has taken place where citizens are banned from carrying guns.”
According to Heritage Foundation security expert Steve Bucci, the Army may indeed take a look at allowing soldiers who have civilian concealed-carry permits to take their weapons on base. But he doubts officials will revoke the standard ban.
“The military is very persnickety about weapons,” says Mr. Bucci, who is also a former commander of the US Army’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces, and former assistant to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “I don’t see a great benefit to be gained from giving some sort of blanket waiver that anyone on post can carry. I’ll be honest, even in the military there’s varying levels of training and capability at using weapons.”
To be sure, Bucci says, Fort Hood officers and soldiers will engage in a “soul-searching” mission to identify what went wrong in the series of events that led up to this week’s tragedy.
Other seasoned Army brass noted that allowing more general gun-carry on base could be the wrong fix for the problem at hand.
"At the end of the day, it's not going to be about the gun necessarily, it's going to be about the soldier and the care that he should have gotten that he wasn't getting, or somebody knew," retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore told CNN. "At the bottom, there's a sergeant that knows that there's something wrong with that soldier, that he needed more help. At the bottom of this, there's a captain that knows."