They’ve got assault rifles, American flags, and, in some cases, enough lawn chairs to make their call-to-arms look like a tailgate.
In the wake of the Chattanooga shooting that killed five service members, armed activists are guarding the nation’s military recruiting centers and they’re encouraging average citizens to do the same.
In Concord, New Hampshire, gun-shop owner Brian Blackden stood alone Monday outside the Armed Forces Career Center. He wielded a sniper rifle and handgun in broad daylight as he paced the sidewalk of the center's strip mall.
By afternoon, at least six other patriots with AR-15 and AK-47 rifles joined him. Local police and residents delivered well wishes, along with snacks and bottles of water, Blackden said.
“These people are putting on the uniform to protect you and me, yet they don’t have the weapons necessary to protect themselves,” Blackden told The Daily Beast. “They’re fish in a barrel.”
“I said, ‘You know what? It’s time,’” the 50-year-old gunslinger continued. “I made a sign and grabbed my rifle and my .45 and went out and stood guard.”
Blackden is one of scores of civilian watchdogs taking it upon themselves to guard recruiting stations—even as military higher-ups discourage the displays of force.
The firearm-toting volunteers are making headlines in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and other open-carry states. They say the shooting death of four Marines and one Naval officer in Tennessee last week reveal recruiting centers aren't safe from domestic terrorism.
Blackden returned to the Concord center Tuesday with a .308 sniper rifle as he and fellow enthusiasts pounded the pavement. In one video, taken by a local Patch reporter, Blackden stands next to a sign declaring “We’re at war. Arm our military.”
“We need to prove to the bad guys that not only are you fighting our military, you’re fighting us, the people of this country,” Blackden told The Daily Beast.
In Pennsylvania, retail worker James Fitzgerald and four buddies watched over a Manchester Township recruiting depot with handguns in tow. The security work and silent protest included exchanging hugs with the relatives of one young recruit who entered the building. A wife of one recruiter brought them doughnuts.
Now his crew is building a roster so locals can guard the site until a ban on carrying weapons at such facilities is lifted.
“We’re doing it so the government [officials] get their heads out of their butts, needless to say,” Fitzgerald told The Daily Beast. “Our men and women who are in the recruiting stations are trained military personnel. It’s only right that they should be able to protect themselves on home soil.”
Fitzgerald, 47, said police told him they received “several phone calls that men were walking around carrying guns.”
“[The chief’s] exact words were, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do? It’s an open-carry state,’” Fitzgerald recalled. (For the record, the local police chief told The Daily Beast no one complained, and said, “I see this as nothing more than Americans protecting Americans.”)
Meanwhile, the incoming top Army officer said he supports arming troops at home “under certain conditions,” suggesting that could lead to armed recruiters, ROTC officers, and reservists.
“I think, under certain conditions, both on military and in out-stations, recruiting stations, service centers, that we should seriously consider it, and in some cases I think it’s appropriate,” General Mark Milley, President Obama’s nominee for Army chief of staff, said Tuesday at his confirmation hearing.
Yet much of the United States military has yet to come around to that position.
“We’ve got to debate this. We need to give this a rational, measured look,” one senior defense official explained to The Daily Beast. “Would you let your son or daughter join the military if a recruiter showed up at your house with a gun?”
Those involved in recruiting said that arming troops would make it even harder for them to get into schools, malls, and college campuses.
“Our presence on high school and college campuses is tenuous enough,” a second senior defense official explained. “How are we supposed to go to a high school and say ‘Can we come to your fourth period history class with a gun?’”
Arming recruiters, ROTC officers, and reservists would demand additional training for those forces and armory to provide their weapons. For the Army alone, that would involve additional training and weapons for 1,400 recruitment centers, at a time of increased pressure to cut the budget.
Some quietly fret that arming recruiters and reservists would also endanger rather than protect them, either through accidental shootings or suicide. (According to a 2013 Department of Veterans Affairs study, a veteran kills him or herself, on average, every 65 minutes.) Proving the point, one day after the Chattanooga attacks, a newly armed U.S. Navy recruiter in Georgia accidentally shot himself in the leg with his own handgun.
Last week Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered additional security steps be put in place at recruiting centers, but those steps were short of arming troops, defense officials said. In addition, each of the services are conducting a review to “examine additional steps that can be taken to ensure the safety of service members and civilians at military installations.” Those recommendations are due Friday, according to a Defense Department statement.
Since then, DoD policymakers, the Joint Staff, and the Department of Homeland Security have become involved in the review, defense officials said.
Some agencies outside the military have taken their own security measures. At least six governors ordered National Guardsman to be armed and lawmakers in Tennessee and Wisconsin announced they planned to introduce bills repealing the ban on firearms at bases and recruitment offices. Marine Corps Recruiting Command also ordered recruiters to stop wearing their military uniforms.
But if local media reports are any indication, many activists refuse to wait for military officials devise better security.
About 30 people recently showed up to a station in Hiram, Georgia, and stood underneath a tent with American flags, fans and coolers and posed for photos with assault rifles. The group even has a Facebook page for their efforts, which they call the “Military Protection Assistance Program.”
Some volunteers belong to fringe groups to boot.
In Keane, New Hampshire, members of the Oath Keepers—an anti-government group that formed after President Obama took office—brought out semiautomatic rifles and sidearms.
The Oath Keepers are “current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders who pledge to … defend the Constitution against all enemies” and “declare that they will not obey unconstitutional orders, such as orders to disarm the American people,” according to the group's website.
Watch organizer Chris Rietmann, 51, told The Daily Beast he contacted the state and city police before he organized the event, which brought about seven volunteers. “We were staffed with enough people to do the job,” Rietmann said. “What I hope we don’t have is 20 armed civilians standing around on the sidewalk.”
“Just a couple scares people,” he added. “This isn’t a protest. The point is to protect recruiters who are in a gun-free zone.”
Meanwhile, West Virginia cops showed up when Michael LeRose, a 26-year-old man, decided to guard Charleston’s Marine Corps and Navy Career Center with an M-4 assault rifle. They ran a records check and said LeRose had a right to be there, WCHS reported.
“I’m out here defending them … I’m going to do my part as a patriot and a 3-percenter,” LeRose told WOWK-TV, referring to the extremist group whose name comes from a dubious Revolutionary War statistic.
When asked about some people being concerned about his presence, he said, “My right to carry trumps their feelings. That’s all that matters to me.”
Still, not all military recruiters welcome the patriotic defenders. The U.S. Marine Corps Recruiting Station in San Diego is asking locals not to follow the lead of others around the country.
“While we greatly appreciate the support of the American public during this tragedy, we ask that citizens do not stand guard at our recruiting offices,” the San Diego office said in a statement. “Our continued public trust lies among our trained first responders for the safety of the communities where we live and work.”