In 2010, for the second year in a row, the U.S. military lost more troops to suicide than in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Half took place with personally owned weapons. Yet military commanders who want to intervene have their hands tied by an NRA-backed law that bars them from discussing gun ownership with at-risk troops.
A new report recommends that Congress repeal this rule, setting the stage for a fight between the National Rifle Association and troop advocates trying to stop the suicide epidemic:
America is losing the battle against service member 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 last year’s National Defense Authorization Act that bars military commanders from talking with troops about troops’ personally owned firearms — a factor in nearly half of soldier suicides last year. [...]
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.
More than 462 troops took their own lives in 2010, and suicide rates have only gotten worse: July 2011 marked the highest monthly total on record. The report estimates that “from 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours,” while Veterans Affairs says that a veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes. According to 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,” the authors note. Rescinding the provision would allow military commanders to have open discussions with soldiers so they 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.”
Media Matters notes that Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s second-highest-ranking officer, agrees that the law stops commanders from having important gun safety discussions with troops, putting them at increased risk of suicide. “If you can separate the individual from the weapon, you can lower the incidences of suicide,” he said.
Congress could use this year’s defense bill to repeal the measure, but the NRA had made it clear that they will fight any change tooth and nail. In fact, they collaborated with Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) to insert language into the defense bill that would prohibit the Defense Department 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.”
The NRA has also backed legislation that prohibits pediatricians from inquiring about guns in homes with young children, once again illustrating that it will always prioritize unbridled gun ownership over public safety and the lives of service members.