Bullet holes are still visible in the front windows of the Armed Forces Career Center on Lee Highway on July 19.
NASHVILLE — When Tennessee National Guard recruiters return to their storefront stations, select members will be packing federally issued 9 mm handguns to defend themselves from would-be future attacks like the July 16 assault on a U.S. military training center in Chattanooga.
The move, a major departure from past policy, was announced along with other steps Thursday by Maj. Gen. Max Haston, Tennessee’s adjutant general who is in charge of the National Guard.
Those steps include allowing Guard members with proper background checks and state-issued handgun carry permits to bring their weapons to state armories and related state facilities.
“It was a thoughtful process and that’s what we wanted it to be,” Haston said in an interview. “After what went on in Chattanooga, that horrible tragedy, I think every military agency across the nation took a harder look at their security policies and how well you’re taking care of your people.”
The steps were prompted by 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez of Hixson, whose shooting rampage began at a Lee Highway U.S. military recruiting center and wound up at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway, where he killed four Marines and mortally wounded a Navy sailor. The attack spurred a national conversation about arming state Guard members and U.S. military personnel.
The Lee Highway strip mall housed not just the U.S. recruiting center but a Tennessee National Guard recruiting center. No military personnel were harmed there, but a Chattanooga Police Department officer was wounded after being shot by Abdulazeez before the killer moved to the reserve center on Amnicola Highway.
Haston said Gov. Bill Haslam immediately contacted him while he was on Guard business in Bulgaria, a partner nation where Tennessee units were training, and told him to look for solutions. Meanwhile, at least six other governors, three of them Republican presidential hopefuls, announced more immediate steps, and Haslam came under criticism with one former state lawmaker accusing him of “dithering.”
“The governor asked us to look at procedures and assure him that our Guard members and facilities were as safe as I could possibly make them. And that’s what I did,” said Haston, who ordered Guard recruiting into armories.
A tough nut to crack involved the recruiting stations and other facilities either owned or partially owned and co-located with the U.S. military, which has strict guidelines on weapons at its facilities.
All seven Guard recruiting stations in Tennessee, including the one in Chattanooga, are under leases negotiated by the federal government and thus subject to the general ban, Haston said. They were moved into armories after the attack.
But, Haston said federal policy does allow federal weapons and, a Haston spokesman said, the general now has permission from the Department of Defense to issue them to qualified personnel.
“Yes, we’re going to do that,” Haston said. “In other words, I’m going to issue federal weapons to our soldiers while they’re at work. They’ll be able to draw that weapon, and that weapon will be on some of our personnel. Not all of [them].”
At larger installations co-located with federal installations, “not everybody will be armed,” Haston said. “Designated personnel will be. At smaller facilities, probably everybody will be armed.”
Personnel carrying weapons on federal property must be properly trained in and qualified in 9 mm use, Haston said, adding only one third of Guard personnel are. Most have training with M-16s.
The National Guard will be “selective” in deciding which Guard members carry the 9 mm and will train others to get them qualified for the weapon with “live-fire or simulator” exercises, the general said.
“Arming our soldiers is just one tool in the toolbox,” Haston emphasized, noting he didn’t wish to delve into details. But experts say that can include steps like bullet-resistant glass, which can give police time to respond to an attack, and other measures.
For state-owned facilities, the Guard changed its policy to “allow privately owned weapons to be brought on Tennessee National Guard state facilities property,” Haston said. “Carrying [private or state-owned] weapons on federal facilities is still against the law.”
But before carrying on state property, personnel must have undergone the customary background checks by the Department of Safety and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for all handgun-carry permit holders. Safety officials expedited the procedure for Guard members and cut the cost of obtaining a license from $114 to $72, which covers the cost of the background check.
And they won’t be able to carry any handgun. The weapon must be compatible with 9 mms, Haston said.
Because Tennessee is no newcomer to “active shooter events,” he said, Tennessee proceeded carefully. Last October in a Millington recruiting facility, a recruiter upset over an evaluation “produced a weapon and shot three people,” Haston said.
In July 2014, a 14-year-old boy was buzzed into a secure armory in Perry County. He was armed and killed the staffer on duty, Haston said.
The boy is now being tried as an adult for murder, the general said.