As a candidate and as president, Donald Trump vowed to ban “gun-free zones” on military bases. Days after the tragic Parkland school shooting, the president again floated the policy change as a solution to mass shootings, saying he would use his executive privilege to ease restrictions on gun laws for military bases and schools, allowing service members to carry firearms and teachers to be armed.
Though Trump uses the “active-shooter” cases of Fort Hood and Chattanooga as anecdotes to argue that service members “are helpless without guns,” the reality isn’t as clear-cut. And despite Trump’s rhetoric, the White House doesn’t appear to be working with the military to actually change the policy: The Department of Defense tells VICE News they haven’t been instructed to review their policies since Trump took office, and Bob Jenkins, the director of public affairs at Fort Campbell in Kentucky also said he hadn’t heard of any policy changes in conversations he’d been a part of, but he said the base would comply if and when he did.
For one thing, the current laws are more nuanced than military bases just being “gun-free.” While service members are not allowed to carry personal guns, military police and law enforcement officers like prison guards carry loaded firearms and respond to situations like active shooters.
Nor are they the only ones armed. A November 2016 Department of Defense directive allows commanders to give certain troops permission to carry concealed firearms on base “for a personal protection purpose not related to performance of an official duty or status” for up to 90 days at a time. It’s not a blanket policy, a spokesperson for the DOD told VICE News, but it does contradict Trump’s belief that service members can never carry on base.
That directive was a departure from the original decades-long policy issued in 1992 under the George H.W. Bush administration, which fully banned service members from carrying firearms on base.
Trump’s plan calls for a blanket ban on “gun-free zones” that would permit all service members to conceal carry. At a conference in February, Trump referenced the 2015 shooting at two Chattanoogamilitary installations, in which four Marines and a sailor were killed, as evidence that bases should be armed.
“They were on a military base in a gun-free zone,” Trump said. “They were asked to check their guns quite far away, and a maniac walked in, guns blazing, killed all five of them. He wouldn’t have had a chance if these world-class marksmen had, on a military base, access to their guns.”
The gun lobby supports Trump’s position and has long called for the Department of Defense to abolish the George H.W. Bush’s 1992 directive. The National Rifle Association argues service members should be “allowed to defend themselves on U.S. soil, and has said that troops “lost their lives because the government has forced them to be disarmed in the workplace.”
It would actually be fairly easy for Trump to open up bases to guns, simply by revoking the 1992 executive order, Stanford law professor John Donohoe said.
But members of the military community, including the survivors of mass shootings, say they’re not convinced that loosening gun laws on military bases would lead to a safer environment. Instead, they say the prospect makes them worry about the likelihood of lost weapons, suicide, and accidental shootings.
Thirteen people died and another 30 were wounded the day Army Maj. Nidal Hasan carried out a shooting spree at Fort Hood in Texas. Ryan Walton was once of the first EMTs to the scene, and was later awarded a Meritorious Service Medal for his actions. He says he isn’t convinced that more guns around would have meant less lives lost.
“At the time, I think I may have screamed, ‘Who’s got a gun?’” Walton said. But later he said he realized the chaotic scene was primed for an accidental shooting. “There’s no doubt in my mind, someone else could have gotten shot.”
Walton also worries about another issue that the military community has long struggled with: suicide.
“There’s a lot of service members that go unchecked for PTSD and maybe shouldn’t carry on base,” he said.
Even the commanding general at Fort Hood, Lieutenant General Mark Milley stood against loosening gun carry laws on military installations.
“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,” he said at hearing on Capitol Hill after the November 2016 directive was issued.
Co-founder of veterans organization VoteVets and Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz agreed, adding that he didn’t think the president had a “basic understanding” of how gun laws worked for military installations.
“No we don’t have a gun free zone. We have gun control,” Soltz told .”I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about.”
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.