With military suicides rising, focus turns to private weapons

The New York TimesOctober 8, 2012 

With nearly half of all suicides in the military having been committed with privately owned firearms, the Pentagon and Congress are moving to establish policies intended to separate at-risk service members from their personal weapons.

The issue is a thorny one for the Pentagon, with gun-rights advocates and many service members fiercely opposing any policies that could be construed as limiting the private ownership of firearms.

But with suicides continuing to rise this year, senior Defense Department officials are developing a suicide prevention campaign that will encourage friends and families of potentially suicidal service members to safely store or voluntarily remove personal firearms from their homes.

“This is not about authoritarian regulation,” Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in an interview. “It is about the spouse understanding warning signs and, if there are firearms in the home, responsibly separating the individual at risk from the firearm.”

Woodson, who declined to provide details, said the campaign would be introduced over the coming months. He said that it would also include measures to encourage service members, their friends and relatives to remove possibly dangerous prescription drugs from the home of potentially suicidal troops.

In another step considered significant by suicide-prevention advocates, Congress appears poised to enact legislation that would allow military mental health counselors and commanders to talk to troops about their private firearms. The measure, which is promoted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, would amend a law enacted in 2011 that prohibited the Defense Department from collecting information from service members about lawfully owned firearms kept at home.

The 2011 measure, part of the Defense Authorization Act and passed at the urging of the National Rifle Association, was viewed by many military officials as preventing commanders and counselors from discussing gun safety with potentially suicidal troops. But the NRA said the provision was a response to efforts by Army commanders to maintain records of all the firearms owned by their soldiers.

The new amendment, part of the defense authorization bill for 2013 that has passed in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate, would allow mental health professionals and commanders to ask service members about their personal firearms if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe the person is at “high risk” of committing suicide or harming others.

“We’re OK with the commanding officer being able to inquire,” said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, “but they can’t confiscate.”

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who sponsored the original 2011 restrictions, said he would support the new amendment “if it clears up any confusion.”

“This is a national tragedy that Congress, all branches of DOD, and numerous outside organizations have been working together to solve,” the senator said in a statement. The Senate is not expected to take the bill until after Election Day.

Suicides in the military rose sharply from 2005 to 2009, reaching 285 active duty service members and 24 reservists in 2009. As the services expanded suicide prevention programs, the numbers leveled off somewhat in 2010 and 2011.

But this year, the numbers are on track to outpace the 2009 figures, with about 270 active duty service members, half of them from the Army, having killed themselves as of last month.

According to Defense Department statistics, more than 6 of 10 military suicides are by firearms, with nearly half involving privately owned guns. In the civilian population, guns are also the most common method of suicide among young males, though at a somewhat lower rate.

When active duty troops who live on bases or are deployed are identified as potentially suicidal, commanders typically take away their military firearms. But commanders do not have that authority with private firearms kept off base. Instead, they would often urge potentially suicidal troops to give their guns to friends or relatives, or have them stored on base.

Military health care professionals said the 2011 law inhibited those kinds of conversations.

“It ties the hand of clinicians and the command,” said Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired brigadier general who recommends amending the 2011 law.

Because suicide is often an impulsive act, separating high-risk people from their firearms is considered an effective first line of defense against suicide, many researchers say. Some military mental health specialists say the government should do much more than just amend the 2011 law.

For instance, Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a psychiatrist, retired colonel and former mental health adviser to the Army surgeon general, said the Pentagon should aggressively promote gun safety as well as consider making it harder for at-risk troops to buy ammunition and weapons at on-base gun stores.

“At our base stores, they are increasingly having very lovely gun shops where they sell all different types of ammunition and weapons,” Ritchie said. “I am troubled that on the one hand we are saying we are doing all we can to decrease suicide and on the other making it so easy for service members to buy weapons.”

Many military officials say the Pentagon is not prepared to go that far. But some suicide experts do see a greater willingness on the part of senior Pentagon officials to discuss the links between firearms and suicide.

They note that several prominent retired officers, including Peter W. Chiarelli, a former Army vice chief of staff, have begun speaking publicly about the issue. And they note that the military has begun taking small steps to encourage gun safety, including giving away trigger locks at a recent Pentagon health fair.

“You’ve got to realize the cultural change when trigger locks are given out in the Pentagon,” said Bruce Shahbaz, an Army suicide prevention expert. “That’s huge.”

In the Department of Veterans Affairs, mental health counselors and suicide hot line agents routinely encourage suicidal veterans to store their guns or give them to relatives. But the issue remains difficult, with concerns that some veterans avoid mental health care because they fear their firearms will be confiscated.

“It is sensitive,” said Jan Kemp, the department’s national suicide prevention coordinator. “We don’t in any way want to imply that we would want to take people’s right to bear firearms away.”

Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the Pentagon’s broader suicide prevention program would include measures to discourage alcohol consumption by at-risk service members and remove potentially deadly prescription drugs from their homes.

Though he declined to provide details, a recent Institute of Medicine report on substance abuse in the military suggested several measures, including raising alcohol prices at base liquor stores and cracking down on underage drinking.

There is also discussion in Congress about enacting legislation that would authorize military medical centers to collect and dispose of prescription drugs turned in by service members — a move the Drug Enforcement Administration has opposed.

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