Early this month, three shooters penetrated military bases in Hawaii, Florida, and Texas, leaving seven dead and at least ten injured. Two days after the third such incident at Corpus Christi, Navy Chief John Price* received word—after three months of waiting—that his request to carry a concealed personal firearm on base was denied.
It may sound like a joke, but federal military bases are designated “gun-free zones”
Chief Price is a Navy-certified expert marksman. He trains other sailors in SWAT-style urban warfare tactics, and has battled drug runners in Panama and terrorists in Yemen. His pristine service record is littered with commendations. He holds a concealed carry permit from the county where he lives, for which he had to go through additional classes and vetting. He practices his marksmanship weekly at a local range.
Few people in the world, police or military, are more capable of stopping an active shooter in his tracks. Chief Price is the poster child for the ‘Good Guy With a Gun’: experienced, cool-headed, fully qualified and certified. But in a bureaucracy that has seemingly lost its mind, he is not allowed to carry concealed on base. It may sound like a joke, but federal military bases are designated “gun-free zones,” and even Price is not exempt. He must leave his Glock at home and arrive to work armed with a pencil and a grin, hoping that a copycat shooter doesn’t transform his workplace into a slaughterhouse.
On his base in San Diego, with tens of thousands of personnel, Price must rely for his safety on a handful of armed military police distributed around the perimeter—most of whom have far less experience in combat than he does. The United States trusts Chief Price to bear arms for its safety around the world; but they will not trust him to protect his own and others’ safety at home.
CHIEF PRICE’S STORY
Chief Price’s quest to carry a personal firearm on base started two years ago. As the United States experienced more frequent mass shootings, Price grew concerned for his safety. Gun-free bases presented attractive targets for anyone wishing to create a violent spectacle: Chattanooga, Washington Navy Yard, Fort Hood.
With the faint hope of persuading Big Navy to embrace concealed carry permits for himself and others, Price began to research his options. He stumbled across a little-known directive: in November 2016, the Pentagon had tasked the uniformed services with crafting a process to certify personnel for on-base concealed carry, to deter active shooters like the one at Fort Hood in 2009. Permission from no less than Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work already existed, but Work’s directive had been studiously ignored. As far as Price could determine, only two or three military personnel had managed to receive a concealed carry permit from the military since the directive was signed—two or three out of roughly two million active and reserve personnel.
Thousands of vehicles enter large military installations every day; base police realistically cannot conduct a thorough and effective search of even a fraction. Smuggling in a firearm—even a powerful rifle—is a simple matter for anyone familiar with the security procedures.
If you work there, the base police scan your ID and wave you through. If someone wants to shoot the place up, they are going to do it. And if someone with special forces training were to sneak a rifle and adequate ammunition on base, he could enter a crowded building and shoot 100 sailors in eight minutes no sweat [sic]. The Fort Hood shooter wasn’t highly trained. He was a psychiatrist—ironic, right?—and look what he did: forty-three casualties. Having a couple of sailors with concealed firearms would probably cut casualties from 100 to ten. Or maybe zero—maniacs will think twice about attacking bases if they know any sailor might be packing.
Chief Price’s naval base lacked any procedure to certify concealed carry. No one had ever received one there—he was starting from scratch. He was told he had to meet with Navy JAG lawyers, base military police, the Command Master Chief, and his commanding officer. The procession of meetings took him six months, most of which was spent waiting for busy military schedules to open up. Most of the administrators he met resisted the idea. Those intrigued by the possibility hesitated to support Price openly, sensing the risk of displeasure from senior officers concerned in their turn with political blow-back. The higher-ups didn’t want the directive implemented, and the lower-downs figured that out.
Finally, in September 2019, Chief Price formally submitted his research and recommendations to his chain of command, feeling like he had finished a bureaucratic marathon. Price was told he would receive an update within thirty days. That deadline came and went.
In fact, ninety days was fast approaching when news broke that Navy sailor Gabriel Antonio Romero had killed two people and himself at Naval Base Pearl Harbor. Then came Pensacola. “It broke my heart,” Price said:
I trained at Pensacola. I was one of those kids, trying to make something of myself. At a training command like that, the vast majority of people are young, have never deployed, are vulnerable. I think now it’s only a matter of time before it happens here. I guess I’m about to find out how powerful prayer really is. The Pensacola shooter had ten minutes before police arrived. Response seems to be getting worse.
A soldier who carries concealed in violation of the gun-free regulations risks expulsion from the military and incarceration. The only people likely to bring a concealed weapon on base today are those with malicious intent.
A permitting procedure would change incentives for law-abiding soldiers and would-be terrorists alike. Soldiers who want to protect themselves and their community would volunteer for the arduous vetting process to carry concealed. Those bent on mayhem would avoid drawing attention to themselves by applying to carry concealed, and avoid targeting military bases for fear of being immediately stopped. Such a policy change appears to be a win-win. But senior military officers seem to have incentives of their own—incentives that do not align with the rank-and-file.
POLITICAL CONCERNS OF SENIOR OFFICERS vs. THAT OF THE RANK-AND-FILE
For years, senior officers across the military branches resisted lawmakers’ interrogatories about allowing concealed carry on bases. Some of their concerns are public, some are private. As General Mark Milley, Army Chief of Staff, told Congress in April 2016:
I’ve been around guns my whole life. I know how to use them. And arming our people on our military bases and allowing them to carry concealed, privately owned weapons—I do not recommend that as a course of action … Those police [at Fort Hood] responded within eight minutes. So that’s pretty quick. And a lot of people died in the process of that. But that was a very fast, evolving event, and I am not convinced from what I know that carrying privately owned weapons would have stopped that individual.
According to General Milley, 43 casualties (13 dead, 30 wounded) and an eight-minute response time did not justify a radical change of perspective.
Put bluntly: the people making the decisions are not the ones getting murdered.
One cannot help but notice the difference in perspective here between senior officers and the rank-and-file: an Army Chief of Staff and other top officers are allowed armed guards whenever they like. For them, armed protection is often zero minutes away. The number of senior officers killed at Fort Hood and other base shootings also stands at zero.
Put bluntly: the people making the decisions are not the ones getting murdered.
Senior officers state in public that they fear concealed carry holders on bases will cause accidents or shootings. But this makes no sense: rogue shooters are coming on base whether they have a permit or not, as we have seen. As such, senior officers are effectively telling the public they would rather a dozen soldiers die at the hands of a rogue terrorist than have someone injured by an occasional accidental discharge.
The explanation alluded to by senior officers in private is still more troubling: they are terrified of political blow-back from media and lawmakers bent on gun control, even on military bases.
Senior officers would rather write dozens of condolence letters after a rogue shooting than read criticism about themselves for authorizing concealed carry. No single senior officer can be blamed for a rogue-shooter massacre. But if an authorized concealed carry holder shoots one comrade by accident, the signatures on the concealed carry policy can be traced back to one or a few officers, who will be scapegoated.
PRESIDENT TRUMP ADVOCATES FOR THE RANK-AND-FILE
President Trump campaigned on abolishing gun-free bases in 2016, and continued to support abolition after his election. Paradoxically, the Commander in Chief’s support for the directive may have hobbled Chief Price’s efforts. Military upper-management seems to harbor deep resentment for their boss and his disagreements with military “experts.” According to Former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, President Trump “has very little understanding” of how the military works.
One has to wonder which military Spencer is speaking about: the senior-officer military, or the rank-and-file military.
One has to wonder which military Spencer is speaking about: the senior-officer military, or the rank-and-file military. After the Pensacola shooting, Navy instructor pilots came forward as a group and begged to be allowed arms on base. They were denied, but followed up with a letter-writing campaign to senior officers and lawmakers . Those pilots, countless rank-and-file military like Chief Price, and thousands of signatories to a Change.org petition seem to think the President understands the military and the risks they face quite well.
In the end, Chief Price’s command told him they were denying his application because they lacked guidance from still higher-ups to grant him a permit. Put another way: even though a directive from the Pentagon says his command may implement the policy, they don’t want to be the ones to sign the paper and take responsibility. Chief Price has run out of avenues to plead his case. But it will be instructive to note whether armed security for senior officers increases following Pearl Harbor, Pensacola, and Corpus Christi.
* John Price is an alias used at the sailor’s request. He does not speak for the Department of Defense. All criticism of the military is the author’s and does not represent the views of Chief Price.