COLUMBUS, Ohio >> Gun-toting citizens are showing up at military recruiting centers around the country, saying they plan to protect recruiters following last week’s killing of four Marines and a sailor in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The citizens, some of them private militia members, said they’re supporting the recruiters, who by military directive are not armed.
"We’re here to serve and protect," Clint Janney said Tuesday, wearing a Taurus 9mm handgun as he stood in a parking lot across from a recruiting center on the west side of Columbus. "What the government won’t do, we will do."
Similar posts have been set up outside recruitment centers in several cities around the country, including Madison, Wisconsin; Hiram, Georgia; Phoenix; and several sites in Tennessee, including Murfreesboro.
There’s no evidence that such centers are in danger, and the government isn’t changing how they’re staffed, although some governors have temporarily moved National Guard recruiting centers to armories and several have authorized Guard personnel to carry weapons at state facilities.
Janney, 38, who runs his own garage door company, is a member of the Ohio branch of the "3 Percent Irregulars" militia. He was joined by four other members of the militia, some of whom arrived just Tuesday and others who’d been there since Friday. In Ohio and many states, it is legal to carry an openly displayed handgun or rifle.
The men sat in lawn chairs, occasionally dipping into a cooler for bottles of water, or stood around talking. Some people came by to thank them; others didn’t seem aware of their presence in the large plaza.
Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott said that as long as the owner of the plaza didn’t ask them to leave, the men were not violating any laws. Scott has instructed deputies to check on recruiting centers, but not the volunteer guards.
Employees of a medical supply center next door to the recruiting center said they understood the volunteers’ intentions but weren’t thrilled about their presence. Customers leaving the store said they appreciated the volunteers but thought professional security guards would be better.
"They could just go crazy with the shooting. You just don’t know their state of mind," said Kimm McLaughlin, 44, of nearby Grove City.
On Tuesday, the founder and president of Oath Keepers, a Las Vegas-based Constitution activist group made up of current and former veterans and first responders such as paramedics, issued a national call to members to guard centers. Many were already guarding centers in Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma, president Stewart Rhodes said.
Rhodes said it’s "absolutely insane" that recruiters aren’t allowed to be armed.
"They’re sitting ducks," Rhodes said Tuesday. "They’d be better off if they were walking down the streets of Baghdad, because at least in Baghdad, they could move. Here, they’re stationary."
Capt. Jim Stenger, a Marine Corps public affairs officer for the recruiting district that includes parts of seven Midwestern states, said he hopes the gun-toting civilians will go home.
"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," Stenger said in an emailed statement. "Our continued public trust lies among our trained first responders for the safety of the communities where we live and work."
A 1992 Department of Defense directive restricts weapons to law enforcement or military police on federal property, which would include recruiting centers. The U.S. Army Recruiting Command doesn’t have a position on the citizens’ actions as long as they aren’t disrupting the recruiting centers, spokesman Brian Lepley said.
He said that while tragic, such incidents have happened only twice in six years at recruiting centers: in Chattanooga last week, and in Little Rock in 2009 in a shooting that killed one solider and injured another.
"Recruiting stations need to be out in the public; we need to be out where young people are," Lepley said. Most recruiters are Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans well trained in dealing with shooters, he added.
A group of veterans and their supporters began guarding a Navy-Marine recruiting station in Madison, Wisconsin, on Friday.
"Just civic pride," said David Walters, a 30-year-old Army veteran from Baraboo, north of Madison. "It’s good to show that people can still come together."
He took his turn in front of the station Tuesday with Chip Beduhn, a 44-year-old security guard also from Baraboo. Walters said he was carrying a concealed weapon and would be comfortable with violence if someone tried to attack the station.
In Arizona, armed members of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s volunteer posses patrolled Tuesday around Army Reserve offices in Buckeye, about 30 miles west of downtown Phoenix.
The sheriff said he decided to have three posse members patrol after an Army Reserve captain requested extra security. Posse members are patrolling the area just outside the Reserve grounds, but Arpaio said they would enter the property if extra security was needed. The sheriff has used posse volunteers for similar patrols in the past.
In Hiram, Georgia, about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, a group of four or five people stood outside a recruiting office Friday with their personal firearms as a show of support. They had a pop-up tent, a few lawn chairs and American flags, Police Chief Todd Vande Zande said.
"If it makes them feel better as American citizens and they’re not doing anything illegal, then I’m all for it," he said.
Associated Press writers Kantele Franko in Columbus, Kate Brumback in Atlanta, Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, and Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.