In the days since Muhammad Abdulazeez shot up a Chattanooga military recruiting center, lawmakers have pushed to allow all personnel on bases inside the United States to carry weapons. But that faces surprising opposition — from senior military leaders themselves.

Share story

WASHINGTON — Former senior military officers who are sharpshooters and have served in high government posts are urging caution in the wake of calls in Congress and beyond to arm domestic service members after last week’s deadly rampage in Tennessee.

In the days since a Kuwaiti-born gunman, Muhammad Abdulazeez, shot up a Chattanooga military recruiting center and then killed four Marines and a sailor at a Navy Reserve center, lawmakers have pushed legislation to allow all personnel on bases inside the United States to carry weapons.

Weapons were barred from military bases under President Clinton, a Democrat. The prohibition was drafted by aides to his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

“It is clear that our military personnel have become targets, not just abroad but on American soil as well,” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Tennessee Republican who introduced a bill Monday to remove the two-decade-long ban. “Therefore, they must be given the tools to defend themselves.”

Some governors are not waiting for Congress. From Florida to Texas and North Carolina, chief executives in at least six states have authorized National Guard units to be armed, moved them to fortified armories or increased security.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter directed the five military services to give him recommendations for beefing up security at their installations. In the meantime, he ordered Marines to stop wearing their uniforms at recruiting centers, which are especially soft military targets because many are located in shopping centers and other places easily accessible to civilians.

But carrying weapons faces surprising opposition — from senior military leaders themselves.

“I think we have to be careful about over-arming ourselves, and I’m not talking about where you end up attacking each other,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said last week. The danger of too many weapons includes “accidental discharges and everything else that goes along with having weapons that are loaded that causes injuries.”

Retired Navy Capt. Charles Stimson, who served as a military judge, lawyer and prosecutor and is now head of the national-security law program at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, also thinks allowing service personnel to carry weapons on base is a bad idea.

“I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” Stimson, who held the civilian post of deputy assistant defense secretary in charge of detainee policy under President George W. Bush, said Monday. But “they’re not expert marksmen. They don’t have the annual requirement to qualify on a shooting range like a (Navy) SEAL would or a Green Beret or a Marine.”

Of the five military services, only the Marine Corps requires every member to qualify as a rifleman, in part because Marines provide security at U.S. embassies and other American facilities around the world.

The other four services provide only basic weapons training to most members, providing combat-level training only to those who are headed to war zones.

“You have a vast cadre of people in the military — doctors, lawyers, intelligence specialists, cryptologists, mechanics — whose jobs are important because they support combat troops, but it is not their job to point weapons at people and kill them,” Stimson said.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Rick Nelson, now a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, served as a helicopter pilot and held senior national security posts.

Nelson qualified as a Navy rifle sharpshooter, the service’s second-highest weapons rating. To him, arming all domestic service members would be an exaggerated response to the shootings in Chattanooga.

“Training a Marine for combat in Iraq is very different from training a police officer to use force appropriately,” he said. “Conflating those two scenarios — putting a combat-trained military person into a law-enforcement situation — is not going to produce the results we want.”

Nelson would rather see changes such as hiring security to guard recruiting centers and installing bulletproof glass.