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In war on suicide, Pentagon wants to disarm at-risk soldiers

  • Article by: JAMES DAO
  • New York Times
  • October 7, 2012 - 9:50 PM

With nearly half of all suicides in the military having been committed with privately owned firearms, the Pentagon and Congress are moving to establish policies intended to separate at-risk service members from their personal weapons.

The issue is a thorny one for the Pentagon, with gun-rights advocates and many service members fiercely opposing any policies that could be construed as limiting the private ownership of firearms.

But with the number of suicides continuing to rise this year, senior Defense Department officials are developing a suicide prevention campaign that will encourage friends and families of potentially suicidal service members to safely store or voluntarily remove personal firearms from their homes.

"This is not about authoritarian regulation," Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said. "It is about the spouse understanding warning signs and, if there are firearms in the home, responsibly separating the individual at risk from the firearm."

Woodson, who declined to provide details, said the campaign would be introduced over the coming months. He said that it would also include measures to encourage service members and their friends and relatives to remove possibly dangerous prescription drugs from the home of potentially suicidal troops.

In another step considered significant by suicide-prevention advocates, Congress appears ready to enact legislation that would allow military mental health counselors and commanders to talk to troops about their private firearms. The measure, which is promoted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, would amend a law enacted in 2011 that prohibited the Defense Department from collecting information from service members about lawfully owned firearms kept at home.

The 2011 measure, part of the Defense Authorization Act and passed at the urging of the National Rifle Association (NRA), was viewed by many military officials as preventing commanders and counselors from discussing gun safety with potentially suicidal troops. But the NRA said that the provision was a response to efforts by Army commanders to maintain records of all the firearms owned by their soldiers.

The new amendment, part of the defense authorization bill for 2013 that has passed in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate, would allow mental health professionals and commanders to ask service members about their personal firearms if they have "reasonable grounds" to believe the person is at "high risk" of committing suicide or harming others.

"We're OK with the commanding officer being able to inquire," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, "but they can't confiscate."

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who sponsored the original 2011 restrictions, said he would support the new amendment "if it clears up any confusion."

"This is a national tragedy that Congress, all branches of DOD, and numerous outside organizations have been working together to solve," the senator said in a statement. The Senate is not expected to consider the bill until after Election Day.

Suicides in the military rose sharply from 2005 to 2009, reaching 285 active-duty service members and 24 reservists in 2009. As the services expanded suicide prevention programs, the numbers leveled off somewhat in 2010 and 2011.

But this year, the numbers are on track to outpace the 2009 figures, with about 270 active-duty service members, half of them from the Army, having killed themselves as of last month.

According to Defense Department statistics, more than six of 10 military suicides are by firearms, with nearly half involving privately owned guns.

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