As discussed here, in trying to find reasons or causes for the alarming upward trend in military suicides, TIME Magazine reporters Mark Thompson and Nancy Gibbs suggest that combat trauma alone can’t account for the trend and offer the following data:
Nearly a third of the suicides from 2005 to 2010 were among troops who had never deployed; 43% had deployed only once. Only 8.5% had deployed three or four times. Enlisted service members are more likely to kill themselves than officers, and 18-to-24-year-olds more likely than older troops. Two-thirds do it by gunshot; 1 in 5 hangs himself. And it’s almost always him: nearly 95% of cases are male. A majority are married.
“Two-thirds do it by gunshot.” Of course, you say. Our military are trained to use guns, they are “the tool of their trade,” troops have access to guns and many personally own firearms in their homes.
Naturally, Defense and military leaders are doing everything within their power to prevent or at least reduce this horrible, unnecessary loss life among the troops.
As part of what these leaders are doing to combat the suicide “epidemic,” they would like to talk to our servicemen and women who own a personal firearm and live off post.
There is one small catch, however. A relatively new law backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) seems to prevent them from talking to these servicemembers.
According to a Christian Science Monitor article:
As they cast about looking for possible ways to bring down the rates of suicide, commanders say that the answer may lie in having candid discussions with their soldiers about their personal firearms–and to take personal weapons away from those who appear likely to hurt themselves.
Gen Peter Chiarelli, the former Army Chief of Staff, says, “The majority of [suicides] have two things in common: Alcohol and a gun. That’s just the way it is…And when you have somebody that you in fact feel is high risk, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to tell that individual that it would not be a good idea to have a weapon around the house,” according to the Monitor.
However, the new law prohibits military personnel from discussing weapons and safety issues with a soldier who has a privately-owned weapon.
Again, the Monitor:
While commanders are permitted to ask troops who appear to be an imminent danger to themselves or others about private firearms–or to suggest locking them temporarily in a base depot–the law requires that if the soldier denies that he or she is thinking about harming anyone, then the commander cannot pursue the discussion further, he adds.
Yet determining whether a service member is an imminent danger to himself or others has been an elusive and frustrating pursuit for the Pentagon.
“I’m struck by the number of folks who come in for behavioral health counseling and are rated as ‘low to medium risk’ [of harming themselves or others] and two weeks later commit the irrevocable act of suicide,” Chiarelli says.
Department of Veterans Affairs officials are backing US military officials in this matter, according to the Monitor.
Some say that the law is not meant to preclude commanders from talking about firearms.
For example, the Monitor says:
“Obviously, the intent of the law is not to preclude a commander from taking steps necessary to mitigate a suicidal or dangerous situation,” says Jared Young, Communications Director for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, in an email. Senator Inhofe was the author of the legislation. Spokesman Young said the senator is “very concerned” about suicide within the military. “At the same time,” he adds, “individual rights must be protected.”
That said, Mr. Young adds that Sen. Inhofe has “reached out to the DOD and other interested parties to ensure that all concerns have been adequately addressed.” The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a question about what a changed policy should include.
In my opinion, this is a difficult and controversial issue. It pitches Second Amendment and privacy rights against the Army’s interest to counsel, advice and protect its members in view of what truly is a national tragedy, an “epidemic” among our troops.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.