Lawmakers want to loosen rules for service members to carry weapons at stateside bases for personal protection, but their efforts appear unlikely to put more guns into troops' hands.
In the wake of the July mass shooting that killed five service members in Chattanooga, Tennessee, negotiators working on the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill included language to give military installation commanders more leeway over who can carry "an appropriate firearm," including some personal weapons.
The provision requires the secretary of defense to establish a new policy by the end of the year, although a promised presidential veto of the broader defense policy bill on unrelated budget matters could delay that.
Lawmakers said the issue is a matter of force protection and safety.
"(We) remain concerned about the response times to active shooter attacks on U.S. military installations and facilities," lawmakers wrote in report language connected to the legislation. "Commanders should take steps to arm additional personnel … if they believe that arming those personnel will contribute to that goal."
But that "if" remains a controversial argument both in and outside the military.
The National Rifle Association and several Republican presidential candidates have pushed for looser gun rules for troops in recent months, arguing that "gun-free zones" increase the danger for law-abiding citizens by preventing them from defending themselves.
Gun control advocates have argued the opposite — and so has the Defense Department.
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Crosson said the department does not support arming all personnel, a position strengthened after multiple safety reviews following the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, and the mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., in 2013.
"Some of the top reasons are safety concerns, the prohibitive costs of use-of-force and weapons training, and qualification costs," Crosson said. "However, DoD guidance does provide flexibility to component and installation commanders to arm additional personnel based on necessity."
Nothing in the defense authorization bill language would force a change in that stance, although it could strengthen individual base commanders' position to arm more troops if they can argue a broader safety need.
Lawmakers emphasized that the policy changes would not supersede supercede any state or local firearms laws. Gun-control activists see the new provision as representing only minor changes at best.
"I don't think the Defense Department is going to bow to pressure from the NRA," said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "We trust they're going to to the right things, their commanders will make the right decisions to keep bases safe."
At least two service members involved in the Chattanooga shooting were carrying personal weapons during the attack, in possible violation of current military rules, and unsuccessfully returned fire in an attempt to stop the homicidal gunman.
Whether even the ambiguous new gun provisions survive to become law remains uncertain.
If President Obama follows through with his threat to veto the defense policy bill, the Republican-controlled House and Senate are likely to attempt an override. But the House approved the bill by a margin that was already 20 votes short of enough support for an override, and Senate Democratic leaders have promised to support a presidential veto in their chamber.
Lawmakers then would be forced to renegotiate a new authorization bill, and Capitol Hill staffers could not say whether the gun provision would be guaranteed to remain in any future drafts.