Congress eyes interesting experiment re gun violence

Following a series of mass shootings at military facilities, some members of Congress have proposed allowing soldiers to carry weapons on base:

Congressional leaders said Friday they will direct the Pentagon to allow troops to carry guns on base for personal protection following a deadly shooting rampage in Tennessee that killed four Marines and seriously wounded a sailor at a recruiting center . . . .

Gun proponents have been calling for the Defense Department to lift its current policy, which allows only security and law enforcement to carry loaded guns on military facilities outside of war zones, since Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 in a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.

I don’t know how much effect this would have on premeditated mass shootings, which are relatively rare and don’t seem to be prevented by open carry laws off-base. But it’s an interesting proposal for another reason: it would provide an opportunity to test theories of gun violence in what is likely to be as close to a controlled environment as possible.

As noted above, currently servicemembers are generally not allowed to carry weapons on base, except under certain limited circumstances. Guns typically must be registered and, if the servicemember lives in the barracks, they must be stored in the unit armory, not in one’s room. Servicemembers who live in family housing are usually allowed to keep weapons in the home, but, for example, at Camp Pendleton

[a]ll weapons and ammunition [must] be stored in approved containers. Weapons containers must be capable of being locked. All weapons will be fitted with a trigger lock.

Moreover, such regulations have, presumably, a somewhat higher compliance rate than their civilian analogs (e.g., the regulations challenged in D.C. v. Heller). Soldiers are trained to prize the safe handling of firearms; they are more invested in following, and more informed about, applicable regulations than civilians typically are; and military housing is, at least in principle, subject to occasional inspection.

In short, military servicemembers on base live under a pretty strong and reasonably effective gun control regime.

They also live in a fairly closed environment. Although servicemembers can bring friends and acquaintances onto military bases with them, and a number of civilians work on every base, most bases are closed to the general public. Perhaps as a result, and because the people who do have access to military bases are heavily invested in and strongly identify with the military as a community, crime on military bases is quite low. (It also surely can’t hurt that by definition everyone on a military base is meaningfully employed or is the dependent of someone who is meaningfully employed.)

Removing the gun controls, then, would provide a nice opportunity for an observational study to determine whether an increased gun presence in a stable environment would make the base community safer or less safe. And this might provide some insight into whether guns in the civilian community make people safer or not — a hotly contested question.

I can think of a few possible confounding factors that might either muddy the data or make it hard to extrapolate the results to civilian society. For one thing, soldiers and Marines (and to a lesser extent airmen and sailors) are already trained in and comfortable with the use and carry of weapons. Many have, of course, carried extensively overseas; during deployment, a soldier’s weapon is nearly always on his body. Despite the intense pressure of the combat environment, there are few non-mission-related shootings. This suggests that military discipline is pretty effective in creating people who use guns professionally but not out of passion. (Alternatively, it could also be that the military is skewed toward people less likely to commit violent crimes to begin with — for example, a Heritage Foundation study found that military recruits as a population are wealthier and better educated than the populace as a whole.)

The flip side of that is that exposure to intense combat experiences seems to be linked to an elevated risk of violent criminal behavior after one returns to the U.S., presumably due to untreated psychological trauma. How that would affect the study is unclear. Would it artificially elevate levels of gun crime? Or, now that the wars have wound down and those suffering trauma have begun to rotate out of the military, will there be a concomitant drop in violent crime unrelated to the change in on-base gun regulations? I don’t know the answer to that, although I would think a carefully-designed study could take it into account.

Finally, of course, military bases are full of, well, military-aged males — i.e., the demographic that commits the overwhelming mass of violent crime. Fighting is not uncommon on military bases, and drinking is a heartily-embraced pastime. Mostly soldiers go home and sleep it off, but if young, single men in the barracks had access to weapons during their off-hours, there’s the potential for drunken brawling to become something more. (This makes the stateside military base quite a different environment from the bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers are constantly armed but there is little unsupervised downtime and alcohol is hard to come by.) That demographic skew would make it hard to port statistics directly to the population at large, though one assumes apples-to-apples comparisons could be made.

It should also be said that this is only proposed legislation. Still, should it become law, we’d have an opportunity to closely observe what, if anything, happens to community crime levels when gun control is suddenly radically curtailed and guns become more common in shared spaces.

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One Response to Congress eyes interesting experiment re gun violence

  1. Pingback: brief follow-up on the previous post | The Handsome Camel

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