Army's respect for weapons adds context to gun law debate

Patrick O'Donnell. Joanna Richards/NCPR
February 6, 2013

The gun control debate has reached a new pitch following the passing of the SAFE Act in New York state. For this story, one in a series on guns in our economy and culture, the Innovation Trail looks at how the Army and soldiers handle weapons, to see if any lessons can be gleaned to inform the civilian debate.

Speaking to soldiers about firearms, no matter what their individual views are on gun control, one thing becomes clear: they take them seriously. One soldier said the biggest thing the military teaches you is to respect the weapon you're issued.

Scott Petrowski, a policy action officer for the physical security of arms, ammunition and explosives for the Army, says a culture of safety is created from the moment a soldier joins up.

“Weapons safety is briefed and is always emphasized each time a soldier is issued or handles a weapon,” he says. “At a minimum, soldiers having arming authorization require annual training that includes weapons safety, care, live-fire qualification, and training on rules for the use of force.”

The use of guns and ammunition is tracked carefully. Army-issued weapons are kept in locked racks in armories equipped with intrusion detection systems monitored by law enforcement. Soldiers have to carry the appropriate certification for every weapon issue, and are strictly monitored during live-fire exercises.

At the Watertown Sportsmen's Club's weekend skeet shoot we meet Jeff Chambliss, a specialist with the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, and a member of the club. “I want to get into some pheasant hunting up here. As you can see, I need some practice,” Chambliss laughs.

Chambliss is using a shotgun for the skeet shoot. But when asked what he thinks of military-style semi-automatic weapons in the hands of civilians “what are legally termed ‘assault weapons” he echoes what is heard from a lot of soldiers who are also hunters and target shooters on the weekends. No problem, he says, as long as people are using them safely.

“Military-style weapons… it all projects a bullet,” he says. “And bullets can be thrown out of any type of weapon, it doesn't …  just because they're military-style doesn't mean they are more dangerous than a civilian weapon that any civilian can buy.”

New York's SAFE Act limits magazine capacities to seven bullets. But as one soldier pointed out, in the Army, soldiers practice changing magazines rapidly. Whether or not a smaller magazine will slow a shooter down depends entirely on how much practice that person has had changing magazines.

For that reason, many soldiers said they didn't support that measure, and instead wanted to see a closer link between mental health records and gun permits. But Patrick O'Donnell, an Army captain at the skeet shoot with Jeff Chambliss, says that approach has its pitfalls, too.

“You have people who, if they were to be, you know, restricted from owning a type of rifle or something, that might make them reluctant to go seek help, which, in some cases, might cause more problems than it would solve.” O'Donnell says.

Soldiers like O'Donnell and Chambliss who own private firearms have to register them with their Army post if they live or use them there. They're briefed on federal, state and local laws they must follow, and have to follow the post's rules on authorized use and storage.

Since the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, health care providers and commanders who deem a soldier a risk to himself or others can ask whether he owns or plans to buy private weapons. Scott Petrowski says it's as part of the Army's response to the issue of soldier suicides.

Petrowski says the rules for private gun ownership and use on military installations are generally stricter than local or state laws. For example, even if a state allows concealed carry, Army posts do not.

“It's a safety factor,” he says. “You know, for example, if there was an incident on the installation, the responding security forces, they need to know who the bad guy is. And if you have a person trying to protect themselves, they may become the victim.”

In other words, the security forces may mistake that person for the shooter.

Petrowski says some soldiers don't like that restriction, and believe it infringes on their personal rights. But, he says, “A military installation, first and foremost, is there for military operations. It's for government business. And secondary, we have a population that lives on the installation. So we try to balance use of firearms, and also protect our military community.”

There were oldiers who wanted to see more and less regulation of firearms, though most came down on the side of less regulation. All reflected Jeff Chambliss's sense of seriousness when it comes to handling weapons: any gun can be dangerous, and they need to be kept out of irresponsible hands. Exactly how to do that is something everyone, no matter their political leanings, is trying to figure out right now.