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Darius Gibbs, a former soldier and member of the Watertown Sportsmen's Club, aims a rifle at the range. Photo: Joanna Richards
Darius Gibbs, a former soldier and member of the Watertown Sportsmen's Club, aims a rifle at the range. Photo: Joanna Richards

How soldiers feel about the gun debate

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The gun control debate has reached a new pitch following the passing of the SAFE Act in New York state. But how do the Army and soldiers -- who work with weapons every day -- handle guns, and how can that inform the civilian debate?

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Reported by

Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

Speaking to soldiers about firearms, no matter what their individual views are on gun control, one thing becomes clear: they take them seriously. One soldier told me the biggest thing the military teaches you is to respect the weapon you're issued.

Scott Petrowski is the policy action officer for the physical security of arms, ammunition and explosives for the Army. He says a culture of safety is created from the moment a soldier joins up.

"Weapons safety is briefed and is always emphasized each time a soldier is issued or handles a weapon," he says. "At a minimum, soldiers having arming authorization require annual training that includes weapons safety, care, live-fire qualification, and training on rules for the use of force."

Just because [guns are] military-style doesn't mean they are more dangerous than a civilian weapon that any civilian can buy.
The use of guns and ammunition is tracked carefully. Army-issued weapons are kept in locked racks in armories equipped with intrusion detection systems monitored by law enforcement. Soldiers have to carry the appropriate certification for every weapon issue, and are strictly monitored during live-fire exercises.

At the Watertown Sportsmen's Club's weekend skeet shoot, Jeff Chambliss laughs as he tells me he needs some practice.

Chambliss, a specialist with the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum and a member of the club, says he wants to get into hunting pheasant – but as far as he's concerned, his skills aren't quite up to par.

Chambliss is using a shotgun for the skeet shoot. But when I ask him what he thinks of military-style semi-automatic weapons in the hands of civilians – what are legally termed "assault weapons" – he echoes what I hear from a lot of soldiers who are also hunters and target shooters on the weekends. No problem, he says, as long as people are using them safely.

"Military-style weapons – it all projects a bullet," he says. "And bullets can be thrown out of any type of weapon, it doesn't – just because they're military-style doesn't mean they are more dangerous than a civilian weapon that any civilian can buy."

New York's SAFE Act limits magazine capacities to seven bullets. But as one soldier pointed out, in the Army, soldiers practice changing magazines rapidly. Whether or not a smaller magazine will slow a shooter down depends entirely on how much practice that person has had changing magazines.

For that reason, many soldiers I spoke with said they didn't support that measure, and instead wanted to see a closer link between mental health records and gun permits. But Patrick O'Donnell, an Army captain at the skeet shoot with Jeff Chambliss, says that approach has its pitfalls, too.

"You have people who, if they were to be, you know, restricted from owning a type of rifle or something, that might make them reluctant to go seek help, which, in some cases, might cause more problems than it would solve," O'Donnell says.

Soldiers like O'Donnell and Chambliss who own private firearms have to register them with their Army post if they live or use them there. They're briefed on federal, state and local laws they must follow, and have to follow the post's rules on authorized use and storage.

Since the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, health care providers and commanders who deem a soldier a risk to himself or others can ask whether he owns or plans to buy private weapons. Scott Petrowski says it's as part of the Army's response to the issue of soldier suicides.

Petrowski says the rules for private gun ownership and use on military installations are generally stricter than local or state laws. For example, even if a state allows concealed carry, Army posts do not.

"It's a safety factor," he says. "You know, for example, if there was an incident on the installation, the responding security forces, they need to know who the bad guy is. And if you have a person trying to protect themselves, they may become the victim."

In other words, the security forces may mistake that person for the shooter.

Petrowski says some soldiers don't like that restriction, and believe it infringes on their personal rights. But, he says, "A military installation, first and foremost, is there for military operations. It's for government business. And secondary, we have a population that lives on the installation. So we try to balance use of firearms, and also protect our military community."

I interviewed soldiers who wanted to see more and less regulation of firearms, although most came down on the side of less regulation. All I spoke with reflected Jeff Chambliss's sense of seriousness when it comes to handling weapons: any gun can be dangerous, and they need to be kept out of irresponsible hands. Exactly how to do that is something everyone, no matter their political leanings, is trying to figure out right now.

Reporting by the Innovation Trail is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Visit innovationtrail.org.

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