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Firearm sales coming to MacDill retail store

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 02:49 AM

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TAMPA -

There are plenty of guns on MacDill Air Force Base, home to U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command and two Air Force wings.

But unlike many military bases across the country, you cannot purchase a weapon there.

That's about to change.

In a few weeks, anyone with a military ID who is eligible to purchase a weapon will be able to do so at The Exchange, the sprawling 67,000-square-foot base mall that sells everything from cat food to computers.

The process to sell guns at MacDill began in the fourth quarter of last year, according to Judd Anstey, public relations manager for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs exchanges at more than 100 Army posts and Air Force bases around the globe.

The decision was based on "customer demand and the fact that Florida has a lot to offer outdoor enthusiasts," he said. The change had to be signed off on by the base commander, fire marshal and security officer.

Army & Air Force Exchange Service stores, which are tenants at the base, have offered firearms at various locations since at least 1960, Anstey said. Almost 60 bases in 27 states now sell guns, he said.

The firearms sales will take place in a 400-square-foot section of the sporting goods department, across from shelves full of Xtra laundry detergent and Charmin paper towels.

So far, the firearms counter is empty, save for some scopes, binoculars and accessories such as gun cases already in stock. Anstey said there is no hard date yet set for when firearms sales will be allowed.

The decision to sell firearms at MacDill comes at a time when the military is wrestling with the rising number of suicides in the armed forces.

More than 320 confirmed or suspected suicides have been reported so far this year, according to the Pentagon, surpassing the previous high of 310 in 2009. By comparison, 241 U.S. troops have been killed by enemy forces so far this year, according to icasualties.org.

In 2011, slightly less than half of the approximately 280 suicides involved weapons that were not issued by the military, according to Department of Defense spokeswoman Cynthia Smith.

That fact is not lost on Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret who served as the senior enlisted adviser to the Director of the Interagency Task Force at U.S. Special Operations Command.

Neil, who runs sport shooting events that benefit the wounded, said gun policies on bases are actually more restrictive than those outside the gates.

"It is highly controlled on the base," he said. "As far as fear that Joe the Private walks from the barracks to get a gun and commit suicide, it's the same as if he drove 10 miles downtown to a pawn shop. There are probably less regulations or oversight or issues for him to get a gun cheaply at a pawn shop."

Base regulations back up his assertion.

Aside from following all state regulations for gun sales, only those with a military-issued ID card will be allowed to buy weapons at The Exchange, said Staff Sgt. Brandon Shapiro, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

The possession of any privately owned weapon on the base "must be specifically authorized" by the base commander, according to Terry Montrose, another spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

In addition, Montrose said, no one can transport a privately owned weapon on base unless they go directly to the authorized storage location, the weapon is unloaded and the gun owner "declares possession of the unloaded weapon" when entering the gate.

In addition to base gun regulations, The Exchange will have its own safety regulations, according to Anstey.

A trigger or cable lock will come with every firearm purchase, there will be an explanation of basic firearm features and operations and safety guide provided as well as a discussion of rules and regulations. Firearms buyers will also be given a list of local firearms and hunter education courses and The Exchange will offer a youth handgun guide.

As it looks to deal with the issues of service member suicides and the use of personal weapons to commit suicide, the Pentagon is not looking at new gun regulations or point-of-purchase restrictions, Smith said. Instead, officials are taking a communitywide education approach, she said.

There are two locations to purchase guns within a mile of the Dale Mabry main gate. Because of that, selling guns on base doesn't create a higher risk because of accessibility, said Carrie Elk, a therapist who treats military personnel at risk.

"The presence of a gun shop on base won't add to the risk that someone who wants a firearm to harm themselves or someone else will do so," Elk said. "As a therapist, this issue isn't where a gun is purchased, it's that those who may be struggling with suicidal or homicidal intention are still able to purchase firearms without adequate screening for this risk."

Luzdary Yepes, whose son Giovanny Orozco, 20, shot himself with his legally purchased AK-47 two years ago in his Lutz apartment, said she is "shocked and angry" to learn that the base will soon sell weapons.

Orozco shot himself six months after returning from a tour of duty with the Army. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after shooting up a carful of Iraqi civilians who approached his post.

"I begged him not to get a gun," Yepes said. "For MacDill to even consider selling guns is like giving a bottle of poison to someone who is depressed. It is the worst thing you can do. I would tell the base commander that let something like this happen to his son and he would change his mind about selling weapons on base."

Ryan Thomas, who owns Lincoln Tactical, a gun store less than a mile from the base, said he doesn't worry about competition from the gun store at MacDill.

"No one has 100 percent of the business," he said as two men in Air Force uniforms shopped in his store. "Everyone can win."

Meanwhile, at The Exchange, William Gignilliat, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant, was shopping when he strolled past the future firearms sales counter.

"For years I have seen other bases sell guns," said Gignilliat, who lives near the base. "I shoot rifles. I am really looking forward to being able to buy my guns here."


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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