Soldiers and guns have always gone together. But with the number of military suicides continuing to rise, the Department of Defense (DOD) noticed that almost half of them are carried out with privately owned firearms.
While all branches of the military have suicide prevention programs, the RAND Corporation, in its report The War Within: Preventing Military Suicides, points out that most of them are focus mainly on increasing suicide awareness and identifying service members considered to be most at-risk of suicide. However, the programs lack any mechanism for separating those at-risk service members from their personal firearms.
Most military bases do have policies relating to personally owned firearms developed under the DOD's Physical Security of Sensitive Conventional Arms, Ammunition, and Explosives directives. However, these policies mainly provide for the registration and inventory of privately-owned firearms possessed on-base. Again, the directives typically provide no means of limiting the access of potentially suicidal service members to their person firearms.
In its report, the RAND Corporation recommends the DOD develop and implement a unified suicide prevention and response program that would include the authority to restrict access to "lethal means," including personally-owned firearms. "Evidence consistently shows that means restriction relates to lower suicide rates," notes the report. "This includes not only restricting access to firearms but also attending to the way potentially lethal medications are packaged and how door hinges and shower rods are constructed."
"Since firearms are the most common method of suicide in the military, a focus on firearm safety is an important part of any military suicide prevention strategy," said Lisa Jaycox, RAND senior behavioral scientist in a press release. "We recognize the seemingly contradictory nature of this policy within the military, but the importance of suicide prevention and preponderance of evidence supporting lethal means reductions suggests that these strategies should warrant serious attention."
On October 7, James Dao writing in the New York Times, quoted Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the DOD's assistant secretary of defense for health affairs as stating that DOD officials were indeed working on a military suicide prevention program that will "encourage" families and friends of at-risk service members to "voluntarily" remove personally owned firearms from the service members' homes.
According to Dao, the voluntary nature of the program could be the DOD's way of placating gun rights advocates, including many service members, who strongly oppose any military control of privately-owned firearms.
"This is not about authoritarian regulation," Dr. Woodson told the Times. "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."
During 2011, the U.S. Army reported 165 confirmed cases of suicide. From January through August 2012, the Army reported 131 potential suicides, of which 80 had been confirmed and 51 under investigation.