Study: Disconnect between veteran gun storage beliefs and suicide risk

One in four veterans store all of their firearms unlocked and loaded, seemingly unaware of how the behavior increases their risk for suicide, according to a new study published last month.

A team of physicians led by Dr. Joseph A. Simonetti, a clinician investigator at the Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Suicide Prevention, published their findings regarding veteran attitudes and behaviors surrounding gun storage in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

The data collected from a survey of more than 1,000 veterans — of which 585 identified as gun owners — concluded one-third of respondents stored at least one firearm unlocked and loaded. Nearly seven in 10 stored at least one gun unlocked and unloaded and just under half admitted storing at least one gun locked, but loaded.

Researchers suggest a correlation exists between these storage practices and the belief that guns make homes safer and function best as tools for personal protection. Just 6 percent of veterans, however, think firearms increase the risk of suicide, according to the data.

“Suicide prevention initiatives among veterans should incorporate communication strategies that address common misperceptions about household firearm risk and whether safe storage practices may better align with reasons most Veterans own firearms (i.e., safety) — especially when someone in their home is at increased risk for suicide,” the study concludes.

Doreen Marshall, vice president of programs for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Tuesday the study presents a “huge opportunity” to educate veterans about the connections between storage practices and suicide risk.

“This study points out a disconnect in beliefs between suicide risk and owning a firearm,” she said. “They don’t perceive having a firearm in the home loaded and unlocked is connected to an increase in suicide risk at all. So I think it provides a huge opportunity to increase education around suicide risks.”

Marshall said AFSP partners with the National Shooting Sports Foundation to encourage “brave conversations” among gun owners about storage safety and suicide prevention. “The goal of the program is to educate in prevention efforts,” she said. “The simplest way to do that is to secure their own firearms when they themselves might be at risk … it’s important for firearm owners to have that conversation within their own community.”

Dr. Robert Young, a practicing psychiatrist and editor for Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, expressed skepticism over the study’s intention and conclusions, noting “having to unlock your own gun won’t stop you shooting yourself.”

“This is the same approach as when the Obama administration decided that all vets with PTSD should be barred gun ownership. What really matters is to identify those individuals at risk and provide treatment to them, not classify a group of people as undeserving of a right because some of them may have problems,” he said. “But that’s not consistent with the anti-gun agenda of progressively limiting what kind of guns can be possessed by what classes of people, toward generally ensuring that fewer and fewer people have guns at all.”

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