The Third Rail: Guns and Suicide in the Army

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Guns account for about 70% of military suicides

As a top Army psychiatrist until last year, I always found the Army’s silence about guns’ role in our rising suicide rate disquieting. The Army is committed to lowering the rate of suicide. But there’s a curious third rail that is seldom publicly discussed: the risks of suicide by firearm.  Approximately 70 percent of Army and Pentagon suicides are by guns. In theater, these are essentially all by government-issued weapons. Back at home, these deaths are usually by the service member’s personal weapon.

I participated in the Ft. Bragg investigation after the murder-suicides in 2002. I was taken aback at the lethal synergy of irritability, the learning of a spouse’s infidelity, the subsequent fights — and the presence of a gun in the nightstand. Since then I have reviewed hundreds of suicides, and the easy availability of guns and alcohol remains a major theme. This is especially true in the impulsive suicides, those precipitated by an acute break-up or getting in trouble in work.

Will the Army take away Soldiers right to own weapons? No, and I don’t think it should. But talking about guns, and gun ownership, could help pare back the suicide rate among our troops.

The national data clearly show that restricting access to guns lowers suicide rates. There are simple steps — like putting anti-suicide fences on bridges, or packaging pills into blister packs which take time to open — that could help make it tougher to pull a loaded firearm out of the drawer, and pull the trigger. But guns are the Army’s basic tool. The military exists, after all, to kill. How do we separate the Soldier from his or her weapon, once off duty?

Officially, the Army doesn’t seem interested in taking such action. In the approximately 250 recommendations of the 2010 Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, there was not a single mention of restricting guns, despite recommendations of civilian experts and Army officials like myself.

Why not? Clearly gun control is still a hot-button political issue. I don’t use that term, but I do acknowledge the need for responsible gun ownership, including trigger locks and gun safes.

More and more Post Exchanges  — the PXes that are basically government-owned Walmarts on major posts —  sell weapons. Walk into the PX in Ft. Riley, Ft. Knox, Ft. Stewart or a host of others and there are beautiful little pink-handled pistols and large semi-automatic weapons for sale.

Commanders try to justify this by noting that guns can be purchased just outside the gate. While that may be true, is it sending the troops the right message? In a government-run facility, should guns be for sale alongside diapers and PT shorts?

There is a middle ground. Why not have gun-safety days, similar to the motorcycle-safety days now common on military posts?  Can’t we warn of more than drunk driving on all those billboards lining the roads to U.S. military bases?

If the Army must sell weapons in the PX: do not sell guns and ammunition to the same person on the same day. Train employees to pick up on possibly suicidal customers, and how to help them. Provide suicide hotline numbers or have suicide prevention posters at the gun stores. Consider requiring a Commander’s permission before the purchase of any personal weapon. Require briefings on firearm safety, anger management and risk management. These are common sense suggestions, and need to be talked about in a national conversation.