Regulate Weapons Like We Do in the Military, Says an Army Officer

Joshua Lott / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

For the list of previous entries in this series, please see the index at the end of the post. But: if you’re revving up to send me a note explaining what kind of ammunition the AR-15 uses, and how it is similar to (and different from) the military’s M-16 (and so on), please first at least look at this 8,000 word Atlantic article I did on that exact topic more than 35 years ago.

For today’s installment, letters from readers who are familiar with weapons and with the military application of firepower, and the lessons it has for civilian use.

First, from an Army officer:

I’m a Regular Army officer and have served in frontline positions in Iraq (this only to mean that I’ve got a very small slice of experience with the practical application of what military grade weapons were designed to do).

I’m a southerner who grew up shooting .22s in the field behind the house from the time I could hold the rifle.

I own several “classic” firearms like the M-1 Garand and a Martini-Henry, though not an AR-platform, which I shoot enough at work, to be honest (something half-submerged in my mind makes me think that in my house I don’t need a weapon designed exclusively for combat, either for sport or home defense—my German Shepherd is a much better platform for both).

All that to say that for the first time ever, I find myself more strongly on the side of gun control than of unrestricted gun circulation. (Addendum: I am not one who “vet-splains” and expects that my service makes my point of view infallible, but I hope this might tease out some further lines in the discussion.)

My niche perspective is this: in the Army, firearms are much more heavily regulated than in civil society. How can so many enthusiastic gun owners say that they hold the military as a model, and yet not accept the strict regulations that go with the military’s use of firearms?

Probably with the same logic that they use when they buy military tactical kit and shoot GoPro videos on their homemade urban range, but would never carry a hundred pounds on their back for 20 miles or sit freezing in a foxhole for days on end. This is another facet of rights without responsibility, or privilege without duty, in our present “liquid society.”

In the Army, firearms are stored under lock, key, and sometimes guard, and god help you if one goes missing—the post shuts down and a frenzied search bordering on a religious quest begins. After basic training, soldiers are required to go through a few hours of refresher training with practical drills before they are even allowed on a range for individual shooting qualification. These are ranges that are heavily monitored, with a monumental emphasis on safety.

What might be shocking to people who have not been around the military is that if a soldier cannot qualify with his weapon, he is not allowed to carry or shoot it on live-fire exercises or downrange. (Some people might object that a commander can override this regulation, but having been a unit commander, I can tell you that a CO is assuming huge risk personally by doing so. Ergo his decision is communally understood to have repercussions, and he knows he will be held responsible not only for himself but for the unqualified soldier, something that is decidedly not the case in civilian life. As regards that civilian AR owner, who is his brother’s keeper?)

Can many of the gun-rights advocates be heard seriously advocating for hours and hours of training and qualification by competent authorities before a civilian is allowed to own the same weapon soldiers carry? Perhaps, but I am not aware of it….

After those individual qualification ranges, soldiers spend hours upon hours day after day drilling to conduct more complex operations like a squad live-fire. And perhaps the most complex of all—clearing a room or building in a live fire scenario… It is very difficult for trained military units to deal with lone shooters on a battlefield, yet something in the American psyche—let’s call it the Lone Ranger archetype—is being convinced that one armed teacher can make a stand and take down an evil menace, then receive his hero’s laurels. Perhaps we ought to consider regulating John Wayne movies as well.


What is to be done? Clearly, with several hundred million firearms in circulation, mass confiscation is not practical, politically toxic, and as a sporting man myself, I would say culturally undesirable. But simple steps such as limiting high-capacity magazines, stringent background checks (lets’s not pretend they hold water now), and a licensing process are all good starts. After a certain list of tangible steps is exhausted though, the question becomes a nebulous one of cultural norms. Is there going to be a shift toward seeing firearm ownership as innately bound up in social responsibility? One can hope.

As a very small child I was taught, with fear and wonder approaching holy revelation, that safety with firearms was paramount, and I intend to teach that to my children when they are old enough. But until more Americans interact with structures like the military where safety and social responsibility are innate to firearms, I don’t see how that sentiment can grow organically so that people will accept it, as opposed to seeing it as imposed from above.

Will most Americans grow up and out of the fairy tale that their right to bear arms is without nuance or burden of responsibility? Will they realize they are probably not Lone Rangers waiting for their moment to save the day in their home or school? That the intent of the second amendment is to ensure that any armed, but unorganized and untrained citizenry, is able to overthrow a tyrannical government (a ludicrous proposition, in any case)? I am not sure, but our history and our geography—unlike that, say, of the Swiss, who have long seen firearms as a means to defend their country collectively from invasion—do not bode well for it….

To put a final twist on Oscar Wilde, even in the niche of American gun culture we are living with both extreme barbarism and extreme decadence, with only a precarious sliver of civilization in between.


Now, from veteran war-correspondent and author Arnold Isaacs,  about another civilian-military ramification of the current debate:

I saw a few days ago that Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh have joined up with President Trump and the NRA's Wayne LaPierre in pushing for giving guns to teachers as the best way to deal with school shootings.

Those four guys have something else in common. All of them managed 49 or 50 years ago to avoid going someplace where they might have actually learned what it's like to get shot at. (I already knew that Trump, Gingrich, and Limbaugh stayed out of Vietnam. Have to admit to some glee when I checked and found out that LaPierre is in that club too.)

Different circumstances, but I'm pretty sure that having been shot at anywhere would be relevant experience in thinking about gunfights in classrooms. Of course Trump et al are pushing for gunfights that would involve somebody else, not them. Just like Vietnam, which I would guess all four of them now speak of as a righteous war.

One might also say that those decisions about Vietnam—let somebody else do it—are a pretty close equivalent to that sheriff's deputy in Florida who decided not to go into the school with his gun while the kid with the AR15 was killing people. (Have a bit of a twinge joining the pile-up on that guy, but he really is the perfect metaphor.)

A related thought: these guys who want teachers to pack heat are the same people who yell at us nonstop that mass shootings happen because people are crazy, nothing to do with how easy it is in this country to buy AR15s. At the same time they're positive that those otherwise crazy people will be perfectly rational in just one way and will stay away from a school if they think a teacher might have a gun.

It would be funny if it weren't so sad


Finally for today, from a gun-fancier who lives (and shoots) in Canada:

I've grown up shooting shotguns competitively in a sport called Sporting Clays. And I hunt waterfowl (with shotguns).

I had to take two courses many years ago. A Firearms Course, and a Hunting Course. They are often combined over a two-day weekend, but they are a combined 18 or so hours of class and testing time.

I also shoot a handgun semi-competitively (and not as well as I'd like - I'm old and not improving at anything anymore). Obtaining the handgun permit required another 10-hour course. This permits me to own a handgun, but unless I belong to a gun club it does not authorize me to shoot the handgun. Anywhere. And even to transport the handgun home, if I'm not a member of a Club I must obtain a police permit to transport the handgun between the dealer and my home.

Assuming I wish to join a Club, of which there are a few in the area, I must then at least pass another full-day course given by the club itself. In the case of one club, I must attend about 12 times in a six-week period and demonstrate that I can shoot safely and aren't an idiot.  

None of this strikes me as unreasonable or punitive.

I should add that I keep my firearms locked up in 400lb gun safes in our homes. A thief without a cutting-torch and some skill couldn't get at them.

I look at the debate in the US and don't understand anything about it. The 2nd amendment was written two hundred years ago, and I wish the best of luck to anybody who thinks it authorizes him or her to shoot it out with the U.S. military.

And I don't understand why one needs a license to drive a car or fly an aircraft, which each offer lots of opportunity for tragedy, but somehow owning and using a firearm is somehow completely unregulated. It's illogical. Ironically, in the case of the automobile and the aircraft it is illegal to use both under the influence of alcohol, but one can shoot a gun pissed to the gills and violate no state or federal statutes.

I'm afraid I think much of this firearm stuff truly is wrapped up in white-guy-anxiety-about-blacks-and-'others'. I know so many Americans with whom I sit on Boards (which in theory should mean they're reasonably bright and well-informed) who keep a handgun in their cars or pickups. It's apparently  for 'self-defense' but none of them can point to a previous need for such a measure. They’re just scared.


Previously in this series: