Pentagon vs. NRA: Battle Over Soldiers At Risk of Suicide

Suicide is a serious problem amongst military veterans.  According to a recent policy brief, “Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide,” from analysts at the Center for a for a New American Security (CNAS), “Although only 1 percent of Americans have served in the military, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States.”

Moreover, Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Peter Chiarelli told the Christian Science Monitor that, “Nearly half of all soldiers who commit suicide use a firearm.” 

This information raises many questions.  Most notably, how do we keep firearms out of the hands of those soldiers who are contemplating suicide, or at risk of being a danger to themselves, while simultaneously ensuring the Second Amendment rights of lucid and mentally healthy soldiers are not being infringed? 

To answer this question it might help to examine the current debate going on between the NRA and top military officials, like Gen. Chiarelli, concerning NRA-backed legislation that “prohibits the secretary of defense from issuing any requirement, or collecting or recording any information relating to the otherwise lawful acquisition, possession, ownership, carrying, or other use of a privately owned firearm, privately owned ammunition, or another privately owned weapon by a member of the Armed Forces or civilian employee of the Department of Defense on property not owned or operated by the DOD.”

According to the NRA, this issue “came to a head in 2010 because of a preposterous regulation imposed at Fort Riley, Kan. The Fort Riley regulation required troops stationed there to register privately owned firearms kept off base—as well as firearms owned by their family members residing anywhere in Kansas. It also prohibited soldiers with Right-to-Carry permits from carrying guns for protection off base and off duty, a restriction we’d also seen imposed a few years ago on soldiers stationed in Alaska. Finally, the Fort Riley rules authorized unit commanders to set arbitrary limits on the caliber of firearms and ammunition their troops could privately own.”

So, on one hand, it seems as though the military took an extreme position with respect to firearms at Fort Riley, and, on the other, it seems as though the NRA responded with an equally extreme piece of legislation to prevent not only the regulations imposed by commanders at Fort Riley, but honest communication between soldiers and their superior officers on the subject of firearms. 

“I am not allowed to ask a soldier who lives off post whether that soldier has a privately owned weapon,” Gen. Chiarelli told the CS Monitor. 

“Suicide in most cases is a spontaneous event that is often fueled by drugs and alcohol. But if you can separate the individual from the weapon,” Gen. Chiarelli added, “you can lower the incidences of suicide.”

The problem, Gen. Chiarelli explained, is that “we have issues in even being able to do that.”

However, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam defended the law. “The thing that doesn’t make sense to us is that when anyone exhibits high-risk tendencies, the logical response would be to provide counseling, to address matters at hand that are triggering these high-risk tendencies,” Arulanandam told the CS Monitor. “That would be common sense, rather than to talk to them about gun locks.”

But as it turns out, “half of all soldiers are actually seeing a behavioral health specialist when they commit suicide,” according to the CNAS and Gen. Chairelli. 

“Finding correlations and causes for suicide to lower the rate among troops has proven to be the most difficult [challenge] in my 40 years in the military,” Gen. Chairelli added. 

Also defending the measure was the office of Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who introduced it as part of the 2011 Defense Authorization Act. 

“Over-regulating firearms beyond what is required by state and federal law does not reduce the risk of suicide,” Jared Young, Inhofe’s communications director, said in an e-mail to the CS Monitor. “To suggest otherwise begs the question of where to draw the line regarding additional regulations of prescription and over-the-counter medicine, rope, and other potentially harmful items.”

In a similar vein, Arulanandam argued that, “If you have someone who’s determined to do themselves harm, unfortunately, they’re going to do it, regardless of what laws there are or what questions are asked.”

But is this true?

Dr. Jan Kemp is the national mental health director for the VA.  In her interview with the CS Monitor, she pointed to a study that found that a large number of suicides are impulsive events.  For example, if someone plans to jump off a bridge and finds that bridge is closed, “Studies show they won’t go to another bridge,” Dr. Kemp said. “They will think about it.”

So, what’s the answer?

I’m not sure I have one.  It’s seems, at least to me, that to dismiss this problem in terms of, “those who want to hurt themselves, will hurt themselves” is irresponsible.  But also, to pass overbearing regulations that infringe on the rights of those soldiers who are fit to own and possess firearms is also irresponsible.  What’s clear is that we need to do more to prevent military suicides.  I’m just not sure what that involves.