Freedomnomics

Article published Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Chicago Tribune.

Let soldiers carry guns on bases

By John R. Lott, Jr.

What stops a mass public shooting is a person with a gun. Frequently it isn't even necessary to fire the gun. But the length of time between when an attack starts and when someone is able to arrive on the scene with a gun is crucial in determining how many people get killed or wounded.

At Fort Hood, Texas, this past week, the six minutes before military police arrived at the scene proved much too long for the three people killed and 16 wounded.

Military police are important. They guard base entrances and travel around the base like police do in any city, but also like police, they can't be everywhere all the time.

Most people are surprised to learn that besides the military police, other soldiers on military bases are banned from carrying guns. The ban, first proposed during the George H.W. Bush administration and rewritten and implemented under President Bill Clinton in 1993, was supposed to make the military more of a "professional businesslike environment."

But as a consequence of the ban, during the Navy Yard and two Fort Hood shootings, the unarmed JAG officers, Marines and soldiers could do nothing but cower as the shooter fired round after round.

The killers at these military bases depend on good soldiers obeying the rules against carrying guns.

CBS' Bob Schieffer asked White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer on Sunday whether the Obama administration was "considering the idea of arming some of the soldiers that are on these bases?" Pfeiffer's response: "They don't think it's a good idea."

Yet when Schieffer asked Pfeiffer why, he only vaguely said: "We have to do a lot more to ensure that our men and women feel safe."

Ironically, the Obama administration had released its own solution to these attacks on military bases just weeks earlier, on March 18. But the report on last fall's Washington Navy Yard shooting focused solely on how the mental illness of the assailant went unreported.

As last week's attack at Fort Hood shows, it isn't easy to foresee who will engage in such attacks. The Army psychiatrist who last saw the shooter, Army Spc. Ivan Lopez, 34, found no "sign of likely violence, either to himself (Lopez) or to others." Similarly, the killer at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the one at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater were among the many mass public shooters who had been seeing psychiatrists, but no one thought they posed a danger to themselves or others until it was too late.

So what should be done if the screening for mental illness fails? Or when there is an attack that has nothing to do with mental illness, such as a terrorist plot?

Armed and trained soldiers, many of whom have seen combat, would provide the best, last line of defense. Just the fact that some people might be armed can produce deterrence.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post in an editorial probably gave the clearest explanation for why some people oppose arming soldiers: "Base commanders should not want to make it easier for escalating fights to turn deadly. Another (reason to oppose soldiers carrying firearms) is that even well-meaning people can miss with a shot or accidentally discharge a weapon."

Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq carried their guns with them at all times, but there were obviously no examples of fights escalating out of control or of bystanders accidentally being shot during attacks on bases.

Civilian concealed carry permit holders have prevented potential mass public shootings in America. Shooting massacres that were stopped before police arrived include schools in such places as Pearl, Miss., and Edinboro, Pa., and at colleges like the Appalachian Law School in Virginia. Attacks were stopped in busy downtowns such as Memphis; churches such as the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo.; at malls in Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City; at an apartment building in Oklahoma. And in none of those cases did a permit holder accidentally shoot a bystander.

Police understand this. Last year, PoliceOne, the largest organization of police officers in the U.S., asked its members: "What would help most in preventing large-scale shootings in public?" Their most frequent answer, with 30 percent support, was "more permissive concealed carry policies for civilians."

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace" this past weekend that it was about time we let our soldiers defend themselves. Soldiers who were injured during the 2009 attack at Fort Hood, Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning and retired Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, said it was about time the 1993 rule be junked.

The alternative is to continue leaving our soldiers as sitting ducks.

John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of the recently released “At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge?”

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