A Pentagon survey of military suicides released Wednesday has revived calls for restricting access to guns for service members and veterans.
According to the annual report, two-thirds of suicides by active-duty troops in 2017 were by firearm, a number consistent with reports from the previous five years. Of the 309 suicides committed by active-duty troops that year, firearms played a role 202 of them.
Most of the suicides involved privately owned guns, not military service weapons.
The Defense Department paper echoed a JAMA Network Open study released last month, which found that troops who carried or had a loaded gun at home were four times more likely to die from suicide than those who didn’t. It found a suicide rate of nearly 22 deaths per 100,000 service members.
Catherine Dempsey, the JAMA study’s author, suggested separate storage for guns and ammunition and discouraging the carrying of firearms while troops aren’t on duty. She said greater military regulation of firearms should also be on the table.
“In addition to gun ownership, ease and immediacy of firearm access were associated with increased suicide risk,” Dempsey wrote. “Discussion with family members and supervisors about limiting firearm accessibility should be evaluated for potential intervention.”
With the Defense Department’s biennial Suicide Prevention Conference coming up next month, Dempsey wasn’t the only weighing a crackdown. At an April House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Kathleen Rice, said that suicide among active-duty troops can’t be “adequately addressed — without talking about guns, firearms.”
“It’s been proven,” the New York Democrat said. “Restricting access to firearms may reduce suicide rates.”
At House Oversight Committee hearing in May, Terri Tanielian, a Researcher for the RAND Corporation who has studied military suicides, went further, advocating the confiscation of guns from high-risk veterans.
“We must promote policies that directly address the risk that firearms pose to veterans,” Tanielian said. “It must be acceptable for health care providers, leaders, friends and family to ask about firearm access, discuss safe storage and discuss appropriate removal of firearms from individuals who are at highest risk of suicide”
The case for letting military service members keep their guns
However, Michael Anestis, a University of Southern Mississippi psychologist, made the case that guns aren’t ultimately responsible for suicides by service members or anyone else.
“It’s important to note that having access to a firearm doesn’t make somebody suicidal,” Anestis told CNN in an interview last month. “It’s not that access to a gun puts the thought in someone’s head and makes them suicidal.”
Others have blamed high suicide rates among troops and veterans on the military’s failures in treating mental health issues brought home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Helping warriors work through mental health problems is the focus of a new Veterans Health Administration pilot program launched in December, which seeks to reunite combat troops for group therapy sessions in hopes their shared bond can lead to better mental health outcomes.
“We owe it to them to ensure they are not forgotten upon their return home,” said Independence Fund CEO Sarah Verardo, an advocacy group partnering with the VA on the program. “They may have returned from the battlefield, but their war is not over. For many, their true battle begins when their purpose in the military ends.”