A week after a man fired at an Army recruiting station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, ultimately killing five members of the military, a Baton Rouge Navy veteran has pledged he’ll keep watch outside local recruitment offices — armed with an AR-15 rifle and a .40-caliber pistol.
Steven Castellano, 40, said that until the military allows its staff to be armed inside recruitment outposts — or until he finds a job — he’ll stand outside the Army and Navy hiring stations in a strip mall on Siegen Lane every day from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.
He’s the only known local example in a wave during the past week of self-appointed armed watchmen at military recruitment centers across the nation.
“I’m here for these guys,” said the veteran, who served 14 years in the Navy. “We all took a solemn oath to defend the Constitution and to defend against all enemies foreign and domestic, and just because you’re out of the military doesn’t mean that you’re relieved of that oath.”
Castellano said he was inspired by Oath Keepers, an unofficial coalition of current and former military members that professes an absolutist commitment to the U.S. Constitution, and by seeing other veterans take up similar positions at military outposts across the country.
Castellano said he was discharged from the Navy because of a disability. He had been deployed on a ship to the Persian Gulf during his career, he said, and is now looking for a job in armed security.
A cooler and a hand towel sat beside him at his spot in the shade of a parking lot tree Thursday. Some passers-by yelled, “Thank you,” and shook his hand. Others lingered to have longer conversations with him.
It’s perfectly legal to openly carry weapons as Castellano is doing, said Central Constable Gordon Hutchinson, who said he’s the senior conceal-carry firearms instructor in the state. “The reason you can carry openly in the state of Louisiana is that the law is silent on carrying openly. There is no prohibition against it. Therefore, by omission,” he said, “it is legal because it’s not illegal.”
But some military personnel expressed reservations about volunteers standing guard outside their offices.
“We’re not asking anybody to come out and protect our recruiting centers. They are taking action on their own, so I can’t really speak for them,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Heffernan, a supervisor of the Army’s Baton Rouge recruiting battalion. “I can just say that anytime you have anyone out there who is armed who is not being asked to be there, then we have to take precautions on behalf of the soldiers and notify the local law enforcement that they’re out there, because you really don’t know if they’re protecting you or not.”
On Thursday, a volunteer watchman in Ohio inadvertently fired his AR-15 rifle into the pavement of a strip mall parking lot outside a military recruitment office while trying to remove ammunition, said Lancaster, Ohio, Police Lt. Greg Seesholtz. No one was injured in the incident, but the gunman, Christopher Reed, was issued a summons for discharging a firearm within city limits, Seesholtz said. The strip mall’s property owner issued a letter requesting that police remove all civilian armed personnel from the property, he said.
The Army is taking additional steps to increase security at its recruitment centers, but Baton Rouge recruiting battalion spokesman Roger Harmon said he couldn’t specify exactly what the measures are, other than that they involve “vigilance.”
“Be assured that everything is looked at. Safety is the utmost concern for every commander of their soldiers, and we’re certainly no different than that,” he said.
The Navy has not changed any safety procedures for recruitment offices in the wake of the shootings, local spokesman Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Perez said.
“We’re operating as normal. Nothing has changed,” he said, adding Castellano’s presence “doesn’t make us feel any different.”
Though the National Guard doesn’t operate any traditional storefront hiring stations in Baton Rouge, spokesman Staff Sgt. Denis Ricou said certain personnel are now carrying military-issued weaponry in response to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s order that they may do so.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, which patrols the Siegen Lane military recruitment locations, shied away from stating whether it believes armed civilians are making the centers safer.
Spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said in an email: “We go out to confirm that they are lawfully carrying a weapon and confirm they are not making any threats. Our main concern is that no laws are being broken and everyone is safe.” Castellano said sheriff’s deputies have checked out his ID and recorded the serial numbers of his weapons.
Though no known volunteer watchmen have posted outside recruitment centers within city limits, Baton Rouge police spokesman Cpl. L’Jean McKneely said he believes the civilian guards are beneficial for safety.
“Just the fact that, if they’re, just the same as us, provid(ing) security at a bank or at a grocery store, you know, (if) someone is armed at that particular location, it tends to deter certain activity at that location,” he said.
Hutchinson, the constable, said Castellano’s action could be seen as part of the open-carry movement. Castellano denied he was making any larger political statement, but said institutions like schools, universities and day care centers should be protected by armed guards.
The problem with openly carrying weapons to make a point about the Second Amendment,” said Hutchinson, is “you’re never going to inure the entire population to it.
“So to me, it’s not the greatest of ideas. It’s much more polite and much more reasonable and sensible,” he said, “to just get a permit.”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.