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Col. Jack Jacobs Navy base shootings in Pensacola and Pearl Harbor revive debate — and myths — about guns

Reducing the frequency of tragedies like these requires nothing revolutionary. And flooding military bases with unregulated weaponry is certainly not the answer.
Image: Shooting On Naval Air Station Pensacola Leaves Multiple Dead And Injured
The Pensacola Naval Air Station main gate following a shooting on Dec. 6, 2019 in Pensacola, Fla.Josh Brasted / Getty Images
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By Col. Jack Jacobs, Medal of Honor recipient and NBC/MSNBC military analyst

Back-to-back mass shooting incidents at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Naval Air Station Pensacola have generated wide-ranging debate about the policies governing weapons on military installations, especially the use and availability of weapons.

Incidents like these predictably result in the recommendation of policies that sound emotionally compelling but don’t make much sense in the real world. Notably, mandating the free carry of personal weapons on military bases would make these installations more dangerous, not less.

Incidents like these predictably result in the recommendation of policies that sound emotionally compelling but don’t make much sense in the real world.

First a bit of background. Most American have not spent time in uniform, and so it may come as a shock that a military camp or base, with thousands of service members, is not bristling with weapons. In fact, all military arms, including small arms and handguns, are in locked racks or safes in secured arms rooms. Individual troops are assigned specific weapons, and they are issued only under signature for training, then returned under signature at the conclusion of the exercise. This means gunfire on bases is exceedingly rare, despite a handful of high-profile mass shootings like the deadly 2009 shooting spree in Fort Hood, Texas.

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Service members may also possess private weapons, but these are treated the same ways. Obviously, many service members living off base also own guns, and commanders have a difficult time restricting members from bringing those weapons onto the base. So there is an interesting contrast that develops between the attitude towards weapons on military bases and the attitude towards weapons that has developed among the civilian population, especially in open-carry states. This can make security difficult.

Consider a place like Naval Air Station Pensacola, where more than 10,000 people — military and civilian — work. Because many of these employees live off the base, conducting a thorough inspection of every vehicle as it enters would be impossible, and so the rules are typically more practical, and thus more lenient: a vehicle registered with the base, driven by someone with a government ID, enters without inspection. One can expect that in the aftermath of these shootings, all or most military installations will be more restrictive for a while, although in time those restrictions will likely be relaxed.

The Department of Defense gives base commanders the freedom to permit the open carry of weapons, but it would appear that few if any have done so. With authority comes responsibility, and there seems to be no interest in the military in accepting the higher risk associated with rules that are less stringent. Indeed, the recent shootings are likely to make commanders even more averse to laxity.

In Pensacola, the shooter was not a member of the U.S. military but a foreign soldier in America for training. We have been training foreign military personnel in the United States for many decades, and ostensibly each student has been vetted by his government. No system is faultless, of course, but allies would have no reason to vouch for exchange students they know are dangerous. It has been concluded that the attack at Pensacola was probably a terrorist incident, but Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the Saudi lieutenant who killed three people before being killed himself, had been training there for close to two years. Nadil Hassan, the U.S. Army major who killed 13 people and wounded 30 at Ford Hood, was an American citizen born in Virginia.

We are not going to stop training foreign allies; they purchase billions of dollars of our weapons systems and we train with them and fight alongside them against our mutual enemies. Interoperability of equipment and personnel is essential to battlefield success.

In the end, reducing the frequency of tragedies like these requires nothing revolutionary. And flooding military bases with unregulated weaponry is certainly not the answer. For every example of "a good guy with a gun" stopping "a bad guy with a gun,” there are many more examples of deadly accidents, confrontations that turn unnecessarily lethal — and of course, suicide.

Before Hassan was transferred to Fort Hood, his supervisors should have noticed red flags about his behavior. We may discover something similar about the Pensacola suspect.

Every leader in the chain of command is responsible for everything that happens, or fails to happen, in the unit. Co-workers are with each other every day, and in military organizations almost 100 percent of the time. Leaders are trained to recognize problems as they occur, and the circumstances and behaviors that may precede them. The large majority of outrageous conduct is not something that occurs without warning. Instead, it is the culmination of deteriorating standards and behavior that, in retrospect, surprises few close to the situation. You can never eliminate aberrant behavior, but the very fact that it is aberrant should make it easier to prevent than we are willing to admit.