FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- On Jan. 7, 2011, Public Law 111-383, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 or NDAA, was enacted.
"There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Public Law 111-383 among many Army commanders and leaders," said Tracey Russell, a safety and occupational health specialist for the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center. "Much of the controversy is rooted in misperception."
At issue is Section 1062 of the law concerning the "prohibition of infringing on the individual right to lawfully acquire, possess, own, carry, and otherwise use privately owned firearms, ammunition, and other weapons." This section of the law, according to Russell, is intended to protect the Second Amendment rights of Service Members, but has been interpreted by many leaders to mean they can no longer talk to their Soldiers about privately owned weapons.
"At the heart of the issue is a portion of the law that states, in general, the secretary of defense (and subsequently subordinate commanders and leaders) shall not prohibit, issue any requirement relating to, or collect or record any information relating to the otherwise lawful acquisition, possession, ownership, carrying, or other use of a privately owned firearm, privately owned ammunition, or another privately owned weapon by a member of the Armed Forces," Russell said.
The law provides exceptions in the general rule for military installations and other properties owned or operated by the Department of Defense. Additionally, the law provides exceptions for situations such as the belief a Soldier presents a threat to themselves or others, further clarified in ALARACT 333/2011.
"Essentially, the law states that under normal conditions you can only inquire about or collect information on privately owned weapons brought onto a military owned or operated property or installation," said Lt. Col. James Smith, director, USACR/Safety Center Ground Directorate. "However, what the law does not do, in any shape or form, is prohibit commanders or leaders from discussing the safe handling of privately owned weapons with their Soldiers.
"Not only can you discuss privately owned weapons with your Soldiers, you should discuss this issue, along with the safe handling of military weapons," Smith said. "In the five-year period from fiscal 2008 through 2012, 29 Soldiers lost their lives as a result of accidents involving the discharge of a firearm, while another 160 non-fatal injuries were reported. Eighteen of the 29 fatalities occurred off duty with a privately owned weapon; the other 11 occurred on duty with military weapons."
The basic tenets of safe handling apply to all weapons, regardless of who owns them.
"We don't hand new recruits an M-4 and expect them to operate the weapon safely without training," Russell said. "We also don't assume that once they've qualified with an M-4 they are qualified to operate a .50 cal machine gun. Therefore, you, in addition to your Soldiers, should never assume that simply because you are an expert with an M-4 that you are an expert with all weapons."
"While you can't order a Soldier to participate in training with their privately owned weapons, you can recommend and provide information on privately owned weapons training available in your local area or consider offering a voluntary basic weapons safety class, as Fort Sill is currently doing," Smith said. "You can also mandate that all your Soldiers attend safety classes covering privately owned weapons.
"These classes should stress the need to know appropriate laws, regulations and procedures for the transport, storage and registration of weapons, as they vary between different states, localities and installations," he added. "The classes should also stress never mixing weapons and alcohol. The majority of fatal accidents involving privately owned weapons have also involved alcohol."
"Remember to focus on what you can do," Russell added. "A very wise first sergeant once said that if you aren't listening, you aren't leading. If you truly listen to your Soldiers there is very little they won't tell you, to include their recent purchase of an awesome weapon. No, you can't record that information, but you can use the opportunity to share some safety tips.
For more information on safe weapons handling, visit the Range & Weapons Safety Toolbox at https://safety.army.mil/rangeweaponssafety. The toolbox includes a section dedicated to privately owned weapons, which contains a copy of ALARACT 333/2011 along with safety messages, presentations, videos, posters and links to other tools and resources.