New Military Suicide Report May Revive Debate Over Gun Restrictions

Jul 20, 2019 | Blog

military suicides

A new report from the Defense Department is likely to revive debate over the prospect of using “means restriction” — limiting access to firearms — as a way to reduce the number of suicides among U.S. troops.

According to a DoD report on military suicides in 2017 released Wednesday, two-thirds of suicides among active-duty personnel that year were by firearm, a statistic consistent with the previous five years.

Of the 309 suicides among active-duty troops in 2017, firearms played a role in 202 deaths. Most were privately owned guns, not service weapons.

In a study published last month in JAMA Network Open, researchers found that the suicide rate among soldiers who owned guns was higher than that for their peers who didn’t. And storing a loaded gun at home or carrying one was associated with a fourfold increase in the odds of suicide death among soldiers.

The study suggested that promoting separate storage of guns and ammunition, as well as discouraging public carry when not on duty, could reduce the military suicide rate, which in 2017 was nearly 22 deaths per 100,000.

“In addition to gun ownership, ease and immediacy of firearm access were associated with increased suicide risk,” wrote Catherine Dempsey, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and others. “Discussion with family members and supervisors about limiting firearm accessibility should be evaluated for potential intervention.”

As the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs gear up for their biennial suicide prevention conference in August, lawmakers and analysts are weighing the feasibility of restricting firearms access among troops and veterans who have all been trained to shoot and many of whom own their own weapons.

During a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in April, New York Democrat Rep. Kathleen Rice said any discussion on suicide among service members can’t be “adequately addressed … without talking about guns, firearms.”

“It’s been proven,” Rice said, “that restricting access to firearms may reduce suicide rates.”

At a separate hearing, Terri Tanielian, a researcher at Rand Corp. who has studied the topic extensively, said policies must “be created and acted and tested” to reduce access.

“We must … promote firearm safety among veterans … policies that directly address the risk that firearms pose to veterans,” she 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.”

Discussions on means restriction are challenging in a community where many members privately own guns and have a low incidence of weapons-related infractions.

“It’s important to note that having access to a firearm doesn’t make somebody suicidal,” Michael Anestis, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi told CNN following the release of Dempsey’s research. “It’s not that access to a gun puts the thought in someone’s head and makes them suicidal.”

Dempsey noted that her group’s research showed that simple counseling focused on keeping ammunition and firearms separate and limiting the amount of time a person carries a weapon in public can help.

“Outside the realm of mental health research, focus on these types of firearm safety variables has been shown to significantly improve firearm storage practices,” the researchers wrote.

According to the 2017 DoD Suicide Event Report, the suicide rate for active-duty troops was 21.9 deaths per 100,000 members, a rate similar to the 2016 rate of 21.5 per 100,000.

The rates for the individual services per 100,000 were 24.3 for the Army, 23.4 for the Marine Corps, 19.3 for the Air Force and 20.1 for the Navy.

In 2016, they were 26.7 for the Army, 20.1 for the Marine Corps, 19.4 for the Air Force and 15.3 for the Navy per 100,000.

The age-adjusted civilian rate, which includes American civilians as well as members of the military, is 17.4 per 100,000, according to the Pentagon.

The rates for Reserve and Guard members remain significantly higher than active-duty deaths: In 2017, the rate for Reserve members was 25.7 per 100,000 and 29.1 for the Guard.

In the report, the Pentagon noted that the 2017 figures were “not statistically significantly different from 2014 to 2016 rates.”

Officials reached this conclusion by comparing the 2017 rates with the annual and three-year average suicide mortality rates among U.S. troops.

The Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.

— Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.