WASHINGTON — The Ft. Hood shootings are stoking debate over whether Congress should repeal a two-decade-old ban on carrying personal firearms on military bases, a policy designed to protect military personnel against accidental or indiscriminate shootings.
“The government hasn’t learned anything in five years,’’ said retired Sgt. Howard Ray, who received the Army Commendation Medal for carrying nine people to safety in 2009 when Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others at the base processing center.
“They refuse to allow our soldiers to be armed, and so we are seeing this happening again,’’ he said. "Our soldiers need to be prepared to defend themselves.’’
Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) introduced the Safe Military Bases Act, which would overturn the ban, after last year’s shootings at the Washington Navy Yard that left 13 people dead. The measure has languished. But it was drawing new interest Thursday after Army Spec. Ivan Lopez killed three and wounded 16 others at Ft. Hood Wednesday before killing himself.
“In the state of Texas, you can get a concealed handgun license and walk into the state capital,’’ Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told the Fox News Channel. “And yet, at our military bases, we're not allowing our trained combat, you know, active-duty officers, to carry weapons on base. I guarantee you, if they had that ability, they could have stopped this guy almost immediately.’’
But his fellow Texas Republican Rep. John Carter showed the issue is likely to provoke debate.
“I am a believer in the right to keep and bear arms,’’ Carter told CNN on Thursday. “However, I also believe that if you want to exclude them from your home and tell them that they can leave their pistol at home, you can do it. And quite honestly, Fort Hood is the Army's home. I defer to the Army."
Army policy prohibits carrying privately owned weapons on bases “unless authorized by the senior commander.’’ Carrying concealed weapons is prohibited “regardless of whether a state or county permit has been obtained,’’ according to an Army spokesman.
A 1992 Defense Department directive warned about the “consequences of accidental or indiscriminate use of firearms’’ and said firearms “shall be issued only to qualified personnel when there is a reasonable expectation that life or [Department of Defense] assets will be jeopardized.’’
John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of "More Guns, Less Crime," said the policy was proposed in the waning days of the George H.W. Bush administration in the belief that banning personal weapons from military bases would “create a more professional business-like environment.’’
He and another expert said it was formally implemented after President Clinton took office.
Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the Ft. Hood commander, said at a press conference, "I don't endorse carrying concealed weapons on base.’’
Lopez illegally carried a .45 Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol on base, which he had purchased at a nearby gun store March 1.
Sgt. Ray and others believe the Wednesday shooting could have been prevented if soldiers were allowed to be armed.
“We're not asking anything extraordinary here: these are our men and women who are well trained, who go to war and put on this uniform to be trusted with these things,’’ he said. “This should be an absolute wake-up call.’’
Shaneice Banks, whose husband is an Army specialist at Ft. Hood, said she's not sure whether allowing soldiers to carry guns is the best response, although she said she doesn't generally support restricting access to firearms.
“I'm a gun person, I like guns. It's the person behind them that's vicious with guns,” she said.
When her husband returned to the base Thursday, she said, “I felt somewhat safe, but then again, it's all up in the air because this is the second time it happened.”
Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who has written extensively about the politics surrounding guns, has doubts Congress will approve legislation overturning the ban.
"There might be more talk about it , but I can’t imagine it going very far,’’ he said. "It sort of reflects a very profound difference in America about how to promote safety.’’