A recent NPR story examines the connection between veteran suicides and access to guns. Recent trends dramatize the urgency of the issue, but taking any action is controversial.
Suicide rates have been rising in the US, and veterans now have a higher rate than civilians for the first time in history. The situation is especially alarming for women. Female veterans have a suicide rate between two and five times higher than women who never served, based on figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While numerous studies show that limiting access to guns dramatically decreases the risk of suicide, it can be difficult to balance the right to gun ownership with the need to prevent suicides. Recent events in Congress highlight the dilemma. Currently, the VA makes veterans who have been declared mentally incompetent unable to buy a new gun by flagging their names in the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System. A bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would add a provision requiring a judge or magistrate to put veterans on the NICS. Roe believes that strengthens due process while opponents worry that it could weaken suicide prevention efforts.
While reliable data is difficult to come by, the Harvard School of Public Health has conducted many of the key studies in this area. Work such as theirs suggests some initial steps:
Take private action. As the NPR story describes, veterans could be encouraged to voluntarily surrender arms to family and friends when they feel at risk.
Support mental health services. Maintaining and expanding mental health services would help deal with the underlying issues behind the rise in suicides.
Train gatekeepers. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers need training on how to discuss these issues with the clients they serve.
Change the debate. “The public health message is neither anti-gun nor pro-gun. It’s pro-data,” says Matthew Miller, associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. It’s a good point to keep in mind for moving ahead.
The Veterans Law Group is one of the most respected advocates for disabled veterans within the legal community. Contact us to learn more.