Off the battlefield, the American military has a complicated relationship with guns.
For decades, soldiers and their families have been able to purchase guns for personal use in retail stores on some bases. Even today, some “base exchanges” sell guns. Soldiers and their families can fire personal firearms at target ranges, participate in competitions and in gun clubs – all located on the nation’s military bases. But a federal directive won't allow them to carry concealed weapons on bases, even though it's legal in the rest of Texas.
Now, with two separate rampage shootings within five years of one another at Killeen’s Fort Hood Army base that left a total of 17 people dead, there is renewed discussion over whether soldiers and their family members should be able to carry concealed handguns on military posts in states like Texas.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who declined to take a position on the issue within days of the April 2 shooting at Fort Hood, has now asked for a hearing on the issue.
“He thinks this is an important issue that needs to be discussed and explored, and has called for a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss what actions could possibly be taken to expand concealed carry at military bases,” said Catherine Frazier, a Cruz spokeswoman. “He wants a hearing so that we can fully understand all aspects of the issue.”
In 2009, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist, fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others at Fort Hood. In the latest tragedy at the base, Army Spc. Ivan Lopez shot and killed three people and injured another 16 before turning the gun on himself, sparking calls for a change in the current military policy that does not allow concealed weapons on bases.
Only soldiers who have to carry firearms as part of their military duty can do so on base. Private firearms can be used at base target ranges, but they must be registered and secured and taken directly to the range. They are not allowed to be carried openly.
“You just have to think it through,” said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, who as a state senator in 1995 crafted the state’s concealed handgun law. “If we say that soldiers shouldn’t be carrying [concealed weapons] on military bases but at the same time we allow the civilian population who are less knowledgeable, less trained with firearms, what are we saying about our soldiers?”
In Texas, residents pay a $140 fee, attend up to six hours of training, undergo a criminal background check and have to pass both a written and a shooting proficiency test to qualify for a concealed handgun license. As of Jan. 1, there were 708,048 concealed handgun license holders in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which issues the licenses.
But military bases operate under federal law and do not recognize the concealed carry law in Texas or anywhere else.
Until the 1990s, military personnel often kept personal firearms in their base homes without question. But starting in the 1990s, first under then-President George H.W. Bush, the Department of Defense issued an order prohibiting privately owned weapons on bases unless a commander makes an exception.
Base commanders began clarifying that process, and today, soldiers and their families must register any guns transported onto the base or the target range, or stored in base housing. If a soldier lives in a barracks, private firearms are stored at the base armory.
“If they live in the base housing … guns have to be registered,” said Geoffrey Corn, professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, who served more than 20 years as an Army officer.
Corn said he opposes proposals to allow concealed weapons on bases.
“The idea of carrying a concealed weapon is really inconsistent with the military culture,” he said.
He said military supervisors have enough to worry about without the concern that a soldier made unhappy by a particular order could be packing a hidden firearm.
“The military is an organization where leaders routinely issue orders to subordinates that are frequently unpleasant,” Corn said.
But Patterson and others, including Houston attorney Charles Cotton, who was involved in writing the state’s concealed weapon law and sits on the National Rifle Association’s board of directors, argue that it’s time to reconsider concealed carry on bases.
“It’s a political decision to disarm soldiers while on base,” Cotton said. “There’s no justification from a safety or security standpoint.”
Supporters of concealed carry on bases say that gun-free zones make those who work and live in them susceptible to armed attackers.
A letter purportedly penned by a survivor of the most recent Fort Hood shooting, Army First Lt. Patrick Cook, which has gone viral on the internet, was read aloud last week by a supporter of open and concealed carry laws who attended a state Senate Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security Committee hearing. In it, Cook wrote that his life was saved by Sgt. First Class Daniel Ferguson, who kept Lopez at bay by barricading a door that wouldn’t lock.
Ferguson was killed in the rampage. Attempts to reach Cook were unsuccessful.
In his letter, posted on Facebook and passed along by concealed handgun supporters, Cook wrote that the latest shooting is proof that carrying concealed weapons should be allowed on bases.
“More will die, more will be wounded, more families will be torn apart, needlessly,” Cook wrote. “It happened again, and will happen again, because Fort Hood is a gun-free zone."
Patterson said the idea that concealed weapons would increase violence on bases is flawed because someone who would engage in a murderous rampage is unlikely to consider such legal restrictions in the first place.
“It’s a bizarre premise,” Patterson said. “If you’re going to commit capital murder, you’re not going to be concerned about the prohibition on concealed carry to a certain location.”