November 01, 2011

Showdown Looming Behind Pentagon's Suicide Battle

America is losing the battle against servicemember and veteran suicides, a new report warned Monday, which could set up a political showdown between two perhaps unlikely opponents: troop advocates and the national gun-rights lobby.

The report, issued by the Center for a New American Security, recommends that Congress repeal a provision in this year's National Defense Authorization Act that would bar military commanders from talking with troops about troops' personally owned firearms -- a factor in nearly half of Soldier suicides last year. Report authors Margaret Harrell and Nancy Berglass put it this way:

"Congress should rescind the NDAA 2011 restriction on discussing personally owned weapons so that unit leaders can suggest to service members exhibiting high-risk behavior, acting erratically or struggling with depression that they use gunlocks or store their guns temporarily at the unit armory," they wrote. "Given this change in law, unit leaders should engage both at-risk service members and their family members, and encourage them to obtain gunlocks or to store privately owned weapons out of the household."

The National Rifle Association pushed for the ban on personal gun restrictions earlier this year after learning these kinds of rules were being put in place locally at posts around the U.S. Chris Cox, director of the NRA's lobbying arm, said in a message to members earlier this year that it was "preposterous" that commanders at Fort Riley, Kan., wanted troops to register privately owned weapons kept on and off base.

Cox also denounced a proposed militarywide plan that would require "troops to register all privately owned firearms kept off base, and would have authorized commanders to require troops living off base to keep privately owned firearms and ammunition locked in separate containers," he wrote.

So, Cox wrote, the NRA and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe collaborated on language in the defense bill 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. It also requires, within 90 days, the destruction of any existing registration information prohibited by the Act."

According to data quoted in the CNAS report, 48 percent of military suicides in 2010 took place with personally owned weapons. "Multiple studies indicate that preventing easy access to lethal means, such as firearms, is an effective form of suicide prevention," authors Harrell and Berglass wrote.

The defense bill is not yet law. It was passed in May by the House but awaits final action in the Senate.

Although this year's NRA gun rights provision was little noticed when it was first included, the CNAS recommendations about its repeal could bring new attention to the issue if senators decide to try to act on the defense bill.

Senate majority leader Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said generally he'd like to move on the legislation before the end of the year, but it isn't clear when.

In addition to repealing the gun information portion of the bill, Harrell and Berglass wrote that poor communications, data collection, unhelpful policies and the lingering stigma around mental health care all have left the military services and the Department of Veterans Affairs on their heels as they try to prevent more troops from taking their own lives.

Even though there is no single solution, not acting also is not an answer, they said. "From 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours," they wrote.

"While suicides in the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard have been relatively stable and lower than those of the ground forces, U.S. Army suicides have climbed steadily since 2004. The Army reported a record-high number of suicides in July 2011 with the deaths of 33 active and reserve component service members reported as suicides. Suicides in the Marine Corps increased steadily from 2006 to 2009, dipping slightly in 2010. It is impossible, given the paucity of current data, to determine the suicide rate among veterans with any accuracy. However, the VA estimates that a veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes."