News: Firearm safety - everyone's responsibility
Story by Staff Sgt. Matthew Winstead
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - The ownership and safe operation of firearms is a matter many service members feel passionately about, but with a recent string of firearm-related accidents involving USARAK soldiers, officials are putting new emphasis on promoting safe and responsible gun ownership.
"We've had as many as five negligent discharges with privately owned weapons in the last 18 days [as of June 14]," according to USARAK Safety Officer David Head.
Eight negligent discharges have been recorded involving USARAK soldiers on and off post, according to a USARAK Safety Office report. While each situations had its own unique circumstances, there were some common factors.
The largest contributing factor to those incidents was owners assuming their loaded weapons were cleared.
The time of day also played a role. Most of the incidents occurred after midnight with at least three of the incidents happening while owners were cleaning their weapons after 1 a.m.
Most of the cases involved recently redeployed soldiers and non-military handguns.
"It's pretty easy to draw the conclusion that this is probably overconfident people, fresh from a deployment, messing around with unfamiliar weapons and accidentally shooting themselves," Head said. "We've been lucky - extremely lucky - that we haven't had and any fatalities thus far, but if this trend keeps up I'm afraid it's only a matter of time before we do."
Soldiers deployed to theaters of operation in Iraq and Afghanistan typically operate rifle-style automatic weapons and the majority of accidental discharges involved privately owned handguns.
In addition to soldiers making amateur mistakes with unfamiliar weapons, many of the incidents come down to poor decision making.
"One of the eight incidents we've had reported involved a Soldier who was admiring how tough he looked with his new handgun in his bathroom mirror," Head said. "When the round went off it went through the mirror and into the adjoining apartment. Luckily no one was injured in that incident."
Head recommends the use of the acronym "THINK" to any soldier who owns a firearm or is considering purchasing one:
-Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.
-Handle every weapon with care.
-Identify the target before you fire.
-Never point the muzzle at anything you don't intend to shoot.
-Keep the weapon on safe and your finger off of the trigger until you intend to fire.
Accidental and negligent discharges aren't just a tragic mistake; they are also clear violations of USARAK and post policy. This is especially true for cases involving barracks-dwelling Soldiers who are required by regulation to keep their privately owned weapons in their unit arms rooms.
Such infractions can result in an Article 15 or even court martial depending on the severity of the situation, according to Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Hess, non-commissioned officer in charge of Criminal Law in the USARAK Staff Judge Advocate Office.
"Accidental and negligent discharges of any weapon can lead to an in-line investigation where the liability of the shooter will be determined," Hess said. "If the Soldier is found to have acted outside the line of duty, by means of alcohol or plain old recklessness, he or she could be held liable for all damages and or medical expenses. That's in addition to facing the penalties, jail time or monetary losses, for any violations of policies or regulations."
The average amount of time spent on the investigations is around 14 days and can result in loss of forfeiture of pay and up to two years in prison and a dishonorable discharge, something that will disqualify an individual for veteran's employment preference in the civilian world, according to Hess.
And that's just with one charge.
"Normally, during an investigation when we're dealing with an [accidental discharge] we discover several infractions of the policy and each of those carry their own charges. Like having a weapon in the barracks, then discovering it wasn't properly locked or stored unloaded in an approved container. It can snowball really fast and amass several career-ending criminal charges," said Hess.
Both the USARAK safety officials and the Staff Judge Advocate representatives said Soldiers need to be aware of Alaska state laws.
The state allows for the open carry of weapons under most situations; however there are exceptions that must be followed.
No firearms can be taken into any establishments that serve alcohol, federal buildings, which include government offices, police and fire departments, schools or any establishment prohibiting weapons.
When carrying a weapon or transporting one in your vehicle you must declare you have that weapon. Even if the weapon is locked in your trunk, if you are approached by a police officer you must notify them of its presence immediately, according to officials with the Anchorage Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers.
Failure to notify the officer of your weapon can result in the permanent confiscation of that weapon and a potential fine or arrest. Also, in the event the officer decides to question someone who has a weapon on their person, or in their vehicle, that officer is allowed to take control of the weapon and keep it for the duration of the questioning or investigation. Failure to surrender the weapon will be considered a crime and it will get you arrested, according to police officials.
Even with relatively lenient laws governing guns in the state of Alaska, USARAK safety officials and leaders want to make one thing perfectly clear to Soldiers assigned to the 49th state.
"When you cross that gate, all that leeway goes right out the window and you're back under UCMJ and federal laws on the installation," Head said. "These rules and regulations covering weapons on post are for the safety of all the people on the installation, and if you break them you will face the consequences."
Joint Base Elmendorf/Richardson and USARAK does not permit open or concealed carried weapons of any nature on the installation with the exception of authorized military issue weapons for specific military missions and requirements.
Privately owned weapons must be declared, registered and stored in accordance with USARAK Regulation 190-1. Copies of the registration forms can be found at both the Visitor's Control Center and the Military Police station on post.
For additional information on weapons safety and the regulation governing weapons on post contact your unit safety officer or visit the website: https://safety.army.mil/rangeweaponssafety