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MacDill Airmen Can't Have Personal Weapons on Base

Servicemembers stationed at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., fire handguns at an indoor shooting range. (Air Force/John Farnell)
Servicemembers stationed at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., fire handguns at an indoor shooting range. (Air Force/John Farnell)

TAMPA -- At a time of heightened concern over security at military bases, more than two-thirds of airmen at MacDill Air Force Base surveyed last month said they want permission to carry weapons on base -- something only law enforcement personnel are allowed to do.

The survey was taken Jan. 26 after Air Force Col. Dan Tulley, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, held his quarterly meetings with the men and women under his command, known as a commander's call.

One non-commissioned officers asked Tulley if he would follow the lead of his counterpart at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and allow weapons on base, said Terry Montrose, a spokesman for the wing, which is the MacDill host unit.

That led to the survey, in which airmen were asked, "Do you think we should be allowed to carry weapons on base?"

Montrose said 357 airmen responded via computer and 68 percent said yes. A self-selecting poll, rather than a scientific, random survey, it reflects only the views of those who answered -- about 12 percent of the wing's 2,900 uniformed personnel.

In December, Col. David Benson, commander of the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess, decided to allow authorized personnel to transport and secure privately owned handguns in privately owned vehicles within the legal boundaries of Dyess Air Force Base provided they possess a current and valid Texas Concealed Handgun License or a reciprocating state concealed carry license.

Benson's decision does not permit carrying concealed weapons on base. And individuals wishing to transport a handgun must also have a valid Department of Defense identification card or Common Access Card and hold status as active-duty personnel, reserve personnel, National Guard personnel, retired military personnel, dependents of active-duty personnel or Department of Defense civilians.

Private contractors, visitors or holders of special/one-time passes are not allowed to bring their handguns into the legal boundary of Dyess at any time.

What will become of the MacDill survey results remains to be seen. No change is imminent, Montrose said.

"It was an impromptu question, with no thought of how to use the information going forward," he said. "But we have the data if needed."

The survey numbers surprised one weapons training expert.

David "Bo" Bolgiano, a retired Army colonel and former law enforcement officer, said he would have expected 90 percent of uniformed personnel to support allowing troops to carry weapons on base.

"Maybe it's the circles I hang out in," Bolgiano said, "but I get more than 90 percent of feedback of people wanting to defend themselves, especially senior non-commissioned officers and those who were in theater for multiple combat tours."

Bolgiano, who served on the faculty at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is familiar with MacDill. From 2002 to 2004, he was stationed there as command judge advocate for Special Operations Command Central under its commander, Delta Force leader Gary Harrell.

Bolgiano now works with Countermeasure Consulting Group, a risk management and consultant firm "with extensive expertise in Active Shooter Event preparation," according to the company website. He said it is a mistake not to allow service members, who are trained to use weapons in stressful situations, to bring weapons on bases.

"It continues to perplex me, in light of all that has gone on, with attacks on U.S. service members at recruiting stations and two events at Fort Hood and one at the Navy Yard, that we are setting up forces for failure," Bolgiano said.

Thirteen people died in a terror-inspired shooting in November 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, and 12 were killed in a September 2013 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

"It comes down to a lack of trust," Bolgiano said. "I find it very disturbing that for people who multiple times put their lives on the line for our country, we treat them like imbeciles when they get back here to their home station."

Bolgiano advocates greater freedom to carry weapons than airmen have at Dyess.

"When a gunfight erupts, you can't say, 'Timeout, hold on, I have to run to my car and get my weapon,'" Bolgiano said.

Historically, most cases of on-base gun violence have been carried out by service members. In a report after the terror-inspired shooting deaths last July of four Marines and a sailor in Chattanooga, Tennessee, NBC News listed 20 attacks on military bases that were mostly carried out by service members or base employees.

A day after the Chattanooga shootings, the Army's top officer at the time cautioned against widespread arming of those on base.

"I think we have to be careful about overarming ourselves, and I'm not talking about where you end up attacking each other," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said, according to an Associated Press report.

Odierno, who has since retired, said he was concerned about "accidental discharges and everything else that goes along with having weapons that are loaded that causes injuries."

Bolgiano said anyone allowed to carry guns on base should be trained -- not just in marksmanship but in active-shooter situations, as well.

"Training makes a big difference," he said. "Decision-making under stress is something that requires repetitive learned training and behavior."

Citing his own example as a recovering cancer patient reluctant to carry a firearm, Bolgiano said knowing what to do under stress "is a perishable skill.

"After my battle with Stage 4 cancer, I did not shoot or train for four years," he said. "I didn't carry until I went out with trainers and knocked the rust off and felt competent. I have a responsibility not just to my family and myself, but to fellow citizens. I didn't want to carry until I got my skills back."

With that training in mind, Bolgiano suggested base commanders create a cadre of trusted, non-security personnel who can be trained to help handle active shooter situations and give base commanders additional options. His suggestion mirrors one of three ways base commanders can increase the number of armed personnel who can respond to active shooter situations that were recommended under recent guidelines handed down by military leaders.

Air Force base commanders like Tulley have always had the authority to decide the rules about weapons on base.

But after the attacks on recruiting centers in Chattanooga, coming on the heels of Fort Hood and the Washington Navy Yard, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James spelled out guidelines for actions base commanders could take when it came to arming airmen to protect against active shooter situations.

One of those methods is called the Unit Marshal Program.

The newest of the Air Force security tools, the program allows security forces to train airmen and allow them to openly carry an M9 pistol at their duty location. Like the other programs, it must first be approved by base commanders.

This program and two others were developed by the security group known as the Air Force Security Forces Integrated Defense team to enable base commanders to increase protections.

"We looked at active shooter incidents across the country and there are statistics out there that show where many ended without police intervention because there was somebody there who had a concealed carry permit or somebody interdicted the active shooter," said Maj. Keith Quick, action officer with the integrated defense team.

"These programs allow commanders the ability to arm additional trained airmen who could interdict before police arrive and are trained to stand down when police arrive."

Tulley, the MacDill commander, has been briefed on the security options. Montrose, citing security protocols, would not discuss what, if any measures have been taken as a result.

The changes made at Dyess Air Force Base were enacted after military personnel and retirees there asked the wing commander for greater access to weapons on base. The decision to do so was made in response to the Chattanooga shooting and other events, said Air Force Staff Sgt. Kia Atkins, a Dyess spokeswoman.

Dave Winters, an Air Force veteran who works at MacDill as a civil service employee and who trains people to use firearms as president of the Black Dagger Military Hunt Club, said he would welcome even the level of access to weapons provided by the Dyess commander.

"I think we should be armed," Winters said. "Let us have guns in the glove compartment. Sometimes, when you are at the gate, you can sit there for 15 minutes. It crosses my mind that we are kind of sitting ducks."

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