KILLEEN, Texas — In the aftermath of a massacre at Fort Hood in November 2009 that left 13 people dead, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a Pentagon review of the shooting to help ensure, he said, that “nothing like this ever happens again.”
Nearly five years later, it did, in eerily similar fashion.
On Wednesday, when an Iraq war veteran — Spc. Ivan Antonio Lopez, 34 — shot and killed three people and wounded 16 others before taking his own life at Fort Hood, he did so in Army uniform after sneaking a high-powered handgun onto the base, just as the 2009 gunman had done. Lopez bought his gun at the same shop near the base where the 2009 gunman, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, bought his weapon. Each shooting started in a medical-support area for troops, and each ended when the gunman confronted a female military police officer rushing to the scene.
There was also a fundamental difference: Officials say there is no indication Lopez committed an act of terrorism as Hasan did.
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But the replay of a mass shooting at Fort Hood, particularly on the heels of the Washington Navy Yard shooting spree in September that left 13 people dead, including the shooter, raised questions about what lessons Army officials had learned from the 2009 rampage; how effectively military installations can keep out unauthorized guns; and how prepared they are to deal with threats from within, including from soldiers or contractors intent on harming others on base.
At Fort Hood, which sprawls for 340 square miles over the Texas prairie, Lopez was being treated for behavioral and mental-health problems. To enter the base, he would have undergone no security screening beyond showing his identification and would have passed through no metal detectors.
Military personnel who are not police officers are not allowed to carry privately owned weapons on Army posts. Soldiers on post must register their firearms, which Army officials said Lopez failed to do with the handgun he used in the attack. Fort Hood’s rules rely in large part on the honor system. They require all personnel bringing a privately owned firearm onto the base in a vehicle to declare that they are doing so and state why.
“Fort Hood is a big installation,” said the post’s commanding general, Lt. Gen. Mark Milley. “We’ve got a population well over 100,000 here. It would not be realistic to do a pat-down search on every single soldier and employee on Fort Hood for a weapon on a daily basis.”
Those who regularly or occasionally work at or visit the base agreed it was not feasible for a post like Fort Hood to thoroughly check for guns. Fred Burton, a former counterterrorism agent at the State Department who is now a security analyst, said he had visited the post the day before the shooting to do research. “Nobody at the main entrance was asking me if I had a gun, and nobody was checking,” he said.
The shooting renewed debate over whether Congress should repeal the ban on carrying personal firearms on military bases, a policy that was 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 the 2009 attack. “They refuse to allow our soldiers to be armed, and so we are seeing this happening again,” he said.
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. The measure has languished. But it was drawing new interest Thursday.
“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.”
Army and Pentagon officials responded to the 2009 attack by reviewing deficiencies in the procedures for identifying service members who might be a threat, by assessing the military’s mental-health programs, and by examining how the Defense Department responds to “mass casualty” events at its facilities.
Their final report recommended that the department devote the same energy to protecting its personnel from internal threats as it does to protecting them from external dangers; develop guidance and awareness programs so commanders can better identify risky behavior within the ranks; share information about potential internal threats across the military bureaucracy; and develop better responses to emergencies.
The Navy Yard shooting led to a second review of military facilities, including security clearances for access. Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced new security measures at U.S. military installations in light of a review that, he said, found “troubling gaps” in the Defense Department’s ability to protect its service members and employees from threats from within. He promised new security measures. On Thursday, he struggled to address why those security measures either had not been put in place or had not been effective.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report