Chattanooga massacre: When should the US flag fly at half-staff?

The White House has been criticized for not flying flags at half-staff in the wake of the Chattanooga massacre. But there is an etiquette to how and when it is done.

Molly Riley/AP
The American flag at the U.S. Capitol are at half-staff to honor the five service members killed in Chattanooga, Tenn., last week, in Washington, Tuesday, July 21, 2015.

The White House and the US Capitol lowered their flags to half-staff Tuesday afternoon in remembrance of the five service members killed last week in a shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The move comes after the White House was criticized for not lowering the flag immediately following the attack.

Four marines and one navy sailor were killed last Thursday when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire at two military sites. He was ultimately killed by police officers who arrived at the scene.  After receiving criticism from all directions, President Obama ordered US flags to fly at half-staff at all public buildings and grounds until sunset on Saturday.

Flying the flag at half-staff has long been used as a symbol of national mourning and remembrance. These periods are generally announced by the President or a governor to commemorate a tragic event or the death of an important official like current or former presidents, vice presidents, Supreme Court chief justices, or house speakers. 

Certain public holidays are also commemorated with a flag at half-staff. On Memorial Day, the federal holiday that remembers those who died while serving in the military, the flag is flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon. On other holidays,  like Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, the flag is lowered from sunrise to sunset.

During a recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Obama paid tribute to the five servicemen killed last week by the Chattanooga gunman.

"We draw strength from yet another American community that has come together with an unmistakable message to those that would try to do us harm," he said. "We will not give into fear. You cannot divide Americans. You can never change our way of life.” 

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