On Guns and the Military

Regarding Robert’s recent article about the “backdoor gun registration” at Fort Hood:  This actually comes up periodically in the military.  I recall about eight years ago the Fort Carson (CO) post commander issued an order requiring all soldiers in his command (meaning all active duty soldiers based at Carson) to register their firearms, whether they kept them on post or not.  His soldiers raised a stink about it and he was forced to back down.

What many civilians don’t understand: in the military, a commander (particularly a flag officer) has a level of authority and non-accountability that is unheard of in the civilian world. He is, in many respects, like a medieval prince, accountable not to his soldiers, but only to his own commander, another flag officer who is most likely at another post far away.

Another thing about the military that needs to be understood: the supreme authority of the commander is mirrored by the supreme responsibility he bears. So if a soldier goes on a shooting rampage, as Major Nidal did, the first thing that happens is the commander gets called on the carpet and asked “How could this happen? What measures did you take to prevent this from happening?” There’s no concept of “balancing interests” here, which means that commanders tend to be (a) risk averse to the extreme and (b) likely to overreact and clamp down on their soldiers when it looks like someone may do something stupid.

Here’s a non-firearms example . . .

I was based at Taszar Airbase in Hungary for Operation Joint Guard, the US mission to Bosnia-Hercegovina. Taszar was the location of the Intermediate Staging Base or ISB, one of the big logistical hubs. The airbase was located in a large, flat, open plain, as many airbases are (for obvious reasons.) There were several miles of roads in between parts of the base. In the civilian world, these roads would have a speed limit of 25 – 40 mph as the roads were wide, paved and had good sight lines.

So what was the speed limit at Taszar? Twelve miles per hour (or 20 kilometers per hour.) That’s right – TWELVE. Why? Well, because if someone got run over or got injured in a traffic accident, the first thing that would happen is that the commander would be grillled by his commander about what measures he had taken to make the base safe. Nobody would ask him whether or not a lower speed limit had to be balanced against the ability to efficiently move people from one place to another. Safety was everything and that meant that all other considerations—including accomplishing the mission—-ran second to safety. The same is true of these over-reacting gun laws on post.

But the dirty little secret is that post gun regulations are widely ignored by soldiers. In my ten-plus years of active duty I ignored the rules requiring soldiers who lived in the barracks to register their weapons. And I know I wasn’t the only one.

As has been pointed out, soldiers who live in the barracks are required not only to register their weapons, but they have to keep them in the Company arms room and sign them out just like any other weapon. The armorer is required to keep an inventory of P.O.W.s (Privately Owned Weapons.) Obviously if you want to go shooting on Saturday afternoon you have to make arrangements with the armorer ahead of time, which is a major PITA.

My solution was simple. Every military installation in the U.S. is surrounded by a number of businesses: pawn shops, used car dealers, tattoo parlors, strip joints, sewing shops, etc. And among these are “self storage” businesses. When I got to a new duty station my first stop—before I even reported in—was the local self-storage. I would rent a storage unit, put a big padlock on it, and secure my weapons and ammo there. And there they stayed unless I was actually using them. My weapons were secure, I could access them when I wanted to, and what Uncle Sam didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

Obviously, I did run a little bit of a risk if I drove onto post to use the private shooting range (usually at the “Rod and Gun Club” or similar facility). But in those pre-9/11 days many Army installations were “open posts” with no security. So it wasn’t really much of a risk at all.

When I was posted overseas my solution was even simpler. I’d bring my weapons home and leave them with a family member until I got back.

To civilians, the military’s attitude towards guns may seem schizophrenic. After all, in the combat zones, soldiers are not allowed to carry guns, they are required to do so. Back in “the world” they are prohibited from doing so.

But as those of us who have worn the uniform can attest, life in the military is all about control and authority. Seen in that way, the military’s attitude towards guns is understandable. Put more simply, the Army is fine with a soldier having a gun, as long as he’s carrying it for the Army’s purposes rather than the soldier’s own purposes.

(Photo above is the wall of my “hootch” in Afghanistan in 2003. And yes, the magazine in my M4 carbine was always loaded, although we were required to keep our chambers empty while on base).

comments

  1. avatar ihatetrees says:

    …the Army is fine with a soldier having a gun, as long as he’s carrying it for the Army’s purposes rather than the soldier’s own purposes.

    Excellent post, Martin. Regarding the above item – were there changes post 9-11 regarding troops carrying weapons in training? Especially with the non-combat arms soldiers.
    From what I've heard through the grapevine, due to the number of negligent discharges, training and familiarity with service weapons was upgraded significantly (especially in support units).

    1. avatar Martin Albright says:

      Yes, military training underwent significant changes after OEF started in 2001, followed by OIF in 2003. Weapons handling was emphasized even by non-combat-arms troops and weapons were carried everywhere (usually with blanks and blank firing adapters to simulate 'clearing barrel' procedures.) In contrast, when I was stationed in Germany in the 1980s and Korea in the early 1990's we would take our weapons to the field but we never had magazines for them and they normally stayed in the weapons rack unless we were actually moving from one place to another. In those days, if you weren't in a combat arms MOS (I was an intel geek) the only time you ever put a magazine in your weapon was once a year on the qualification range.

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