Two of America’s most respected former military leaders tweeted out their support for gun reform on Wednesday. Their voices added to a growing chorus of current and former military service members who want gun laws changed after a shooter killed 17 people at a Florida high school last week.
Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired Adm. William McRaven — formerly the nation’s top special operations officer — backed the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Twitter.
“Our next generation of young Americans are calling for inclusion in finding solutions to keep our children safe,” Dempsey, former President Barack Obama’s top military adviser, tweeted on Wednesday. “I’m proud of them. They are right, they should be heard, we should listen, and we should act.”
About four hours later, McRaven put out his own statement on Twitter: “This is exactly what we need the youth of America to do: to stand strong, to stand together, to challenges the laws that have not served them well.”
Those messages are a big deal. These former military officers, especially McRaven, know what it’s like to carry around an assault rifle and kill someone with it. They understand the awesome power and responsibility that comes with wielding a weapon of war. For them to speak out an amplify the message of Parkland’s students could lend more legitimacy to their activism.
And they’re not alone — other military veterans are also increasingly speaking up in favor of gun reform. “We believe in the Second Amendment and the individual right to bear arms,” Joe Plenzler, a retired 20-year Marine combat veteran who forms part of the online #VetsForGunReform movement, told me, “but we also believe that the Second Amendment is not an unlimited right.”
In other words, Plenzer said, civilians shouldn’t necessarily be entitled to own and operate military-grade weaponry. “We don’t allow people to hunt rabbits with rocket-propelled grenades,” added Plenzler, who also served as an aide to current Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Joseph Dunford and current Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
If seeing former military officials campaign for gun law reform feels new, it’s not. It’s happened again and again after mass shootings — and it appears the current iteration is only heating up.
Some of the nation’s most prominent veterans have openly called for changes to gun laws for years.
Here are a few examples: In 2013, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal — who commanded America’s elite troops worldwide as well as troops in Afghanistan — came out in support of gun control. “I think serious action is necessary,” he told MSNBC’s Morning Joe in 2013.
”Sometimes we talk about very limited actions on the edges and I just don’t think that’s enough,” he continued. “The number of people in America killed by firearms is extraordinary compared to other nations. And I don’t think we’re a bloodthirsty culture, and so I think we need to look at everything we can do to safeguard our people.”
“As service members, each of us swore an oath to protect our Constitution and the homeland,” Petraeus and his co-founder, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, wrote in a statement. “Now we’re asking our leaders to do more to protect our rights and save lives.”
And last November, Dr. Dean Winslow, a former Air Force colonel whom President Donald Trump nominated as the Pentagon’s top health affairs official, openly derided the idea of civilians owning assault rifles.
“I’d also like to, and I may get in trouble with other members of the committee, just say how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15,” Winslow said during his own confirmation hearing.
I asked Plenzler why politicians, especially Republicans, who usually support positions of current and former military officials seem to ignore their advice on gun issues. “It’s all about money,” he said, adding that he believes the National Rifle Association’s influence on politicians has blinded American leaders to the risks of civilian ownership of military-grade weapons.
As of now, it seems like the Parkland students have found an audience for their activism. Many who served in uniform want to stand alongside them.