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Troops offer strong voice on personal firearms

Mar. 20, 2013 - 02:23PM   |  
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It’s no great surprise that folks in the military have strong opinions about weapons.

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It’s no great surprise that folks in the military have strong opinions about weapons.

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently made headlines when he said it was time to “take a very mature look” at stricter gun control measures, including a ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons.

“I think serious action is necessary,” said McChrystal, former commander of forces in Afghanistan. “Sometimes we talk about very limited actions on the edges, and I just don’t think that’s enough.”

His comments came in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut that left 20 children and six faculty members dead on Dec. 14.

In the weeks since, the White House has announced a plan to curb gun violence by banning sales of “assault weapons,” limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds and requiring background checks on all firearms sales.

A Senate bill that would ban 157 military-style weapons and limit magazines cleared its first major hurdle March 14 when it was approved by the Judiciary Committee in a 10-to-8 vote. That measure is now headed to the full Senate for debate.

Through a spokesman, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey declined to say whether he supported the White House plan. Six retired generals and admirals, however, recently lent their voices to an ad now being aired by “Mayors Against Illegal Guns.”

Meanwhile, retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former Army vice chief, has been consulting with Vice President Joe Biden in his efforts to shore up support for more effective gun laws.

National polls find that many believe more can be done. Almost 60 percent of Americans says it’s time to tighten gun laws, more than 90 percent favor universal background checks and 40 percent support a ban on high-capacity military-style weapons.

But OFFduty wanted to know what you thought.

Support for background checks

A recent online survey of Military Times readers found most troops are much more protective of their personal weapons and the rights of other Americans to keep them.

Among 3,000 active-duty and reserve-component troops who responded, only 22 percent favor stricter gun laws and only one in 10 supports banning military-style semi-automatics. Still, 73 percent said they favor background checks on all weapons sales — no longer allowing for sales at gun shows and between private individuals without one.

“The best way to reduce gun violence is to separate guns and violence,” says Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Taylor. In the media, “guns are portrayed as being the only way to deal with a problem. Years ago, it wasn’t like that. Firearms were seen as a tool, whether for recreational shooting, hunting or preserving liberty. Firearms, when used for self-defense, were also used as a last resort.”

Marine Staff Sgt. Darren Hayden echoed the concerns of many with his view that law enforcement should focus on better ways to disarm criminals than taking guns from those who already obey the law.

“I own assault rifles, shotguns and pistols,” he says. “It’s a hobby of mine, and I have never done anything wrong with them. I carry a concealed [weapon] for my protection and the protection of those around me. It’s something I’d rather have and not need than need and not have.”

That’s doesn’t mean everyone should be able to do that, he adds. “People should have extensive training in the use of pistol and rifle techniques. That, not everyone gets.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Talib Shadeed Abdullah says his 16 years in the Navy as a master-at-arms have convinced him that the most effective way to prevent gun violence is to require training and credentialing for all firearms owners.

Banning “assault weapons” won’t change anything, he says. “If someone wants to kill multiple people, they will come prepared. Doesn’t matter if it’s with three 10-round magazines or one 30-round magazine.”

Army Sgt. Steven Hyatt, now deployed in Afghanistan, says the very idea of an “assault weapons ban” is absurd.

“A weapon is a tool for assault or defense, regardless of whether somebody labels it a hunting weapon, sport weapon or an assault weapon,” he says. “Violence is a human trait, not a firearm feature.”

Marine Sgt. Bradley Warren, who left active duty in February, says background checks for criminal activity and mental health are important, but “it’s a tricky situation to maneuver through” when including private sales.

He says putting more police inside schools may be a more practical solution. “I can’t think of a reason why having a cop in a school would be a bad thing,” he says. “In the event of an attack, they might at least delay the attacker.”

The suicide factor

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told MSNBC’s Morning Joe March 1 that he’s in favor of a ban on assault weapons.

“My personal opinion is, I don’t think we need ’em,” he said. Odierno said he also likes the idea of a weapons registry so that “we can at least keep track of” who owns what kind of gun.

While clarifying that he believes in the right to bear arms, he cited the Army’s high suicide rate, pointing out that most of those suicides are carried out with the soldier’s own personal firearm.

Military mental health professionals say easy access to firearms — not just on the job, but also at home — has contributed to rising suicide rates among troops.

“After reviewing hundreds of suicide cases, I am convinced that the easy availability of weapons is a major part of the problem,” retired Army Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie wrote in a Jan. 25 opinion piece for the Dana Foundation, a private organization that supports brain research and education.

According to the Army’s database, about 70 percent of soldier suicides are committed with a firearm, wrote Ritchie, who served as the director of behavioral health for the Army surgeon general until 2010.

“The gun in the nightstand is too easy to pull out and use when a person is angry or humiliated or fighting with a spouse,” she wrote.

Ritchie noted that the military offers no public safety campaigns about the problems of easy access to weapons in the context of volatile relationships or other reintegration problems, but that returning troops have access to numerous classes and billboards on such topics as motorcycle safety and not driving under the influence.

Army Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham, a blogger and Internet radio host on military issues stationed Fort Hood, Texas, says he worries that talk like that could lead to unfairly limiting access to personal weapons for those who struggle with post-traumatic stress.

He contends there is a common, and mistaken, belief that vets with PTSD are more prone to violence than other segments of society.

“PTSD is not a one-size-fits-all disorder,” says Grisham, who has spoken publicly about his own battle with PTSD. He says that even in the worst of times, “I never once felt the urge to reach for my pistol.”

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