On Thursday night, the House passed a bill allowing thousands of veterans who are “mentally incapacitated, deemed mentally incompetent, or experiencing an extended loss of consciousness” (i.e., blackouts) to buy guns — a measure could make America’s veteran suicide epidemic even worse, according to veteran advocates and mental health researchers.
Currently, the VA refers the names of veterans who are deemed “mentally defective” to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which blocks them from buying weapons.
Veterans may be added to this list for a number of reasons. The VA designates someone as “mentally defective” if they receive monetary benefits to deal with mental health issues or if they need a fiduciary to manage their finances. The VA needs to have clear and convincing evidence that veterans placed on the list meet the federal standard for gun prohibition, and if the individuals disagree, they can appeal the VA’s designation.
There are about 174,000 veterans who’ve been added to the NICS as a result of the rule. According to 2015 VA estimates, about 19,000 of those veterans suffer from schizophrenia; 15,0000 suffer from severe post traumatic stress disorder; 11,000 suffer from dementia; 5,000 have Alzheimer’s disease; and 4,000 are severely depressed.
But the legislation passed by the House — the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act, as the bill is termed — would allow the FBI to erase the names currently on the list, and stop the VA from referring more veterans to the NICS unless a court has found them to be a danger to themselves or others.
Backers of the bill, which received enthusiastic support from the NRA, argue that the current system infringes on veterans’ Second Amendment rights. Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the bill’s sponsor, also argued that the legislation was important to remove the “stigma of mentally ill people — that because someone is mentally ill, they’re a danger to themselves or others.”
For some veteran advocates, however, this kind of rhetoric is particularly frustrating. While it’s true that the vast majority of people who are mentally ill do not pose any danger to others, Roe’s defense of the bill as a step against stigma dangerously misses the point.
“This would be irresponsible, dangerous, and life threatening to those who need access to care, not weapons.”
One of the reasons mentally ill veterans are prevented from buying guns is exactly because research shows that veterans suffering from mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD are at a higher risk of self-harm.
“This proposal would put America’s veterans who need our support the most in harm’s way by providing them with easy access to firearms,” a bipartisan group of retired generals, including David Petraeus and Michael Hayden, wrote to leaders of both chambers of Congress regarding the legislation. “This would be irresponsible, dangerous, and life threatening to those who need access to care, not weapons.”
Veterans account for 8.5 percent of the U.S. population but 18 percent of national deaths by suicide. An average of 20 veterans die by suicide per day. Seventy percent of those suicides occur via firearm.
When it comes to people struggling with their mental health and contemplating suicide, easy access to guns is especially deadly. Firearms are extremely fatal and, when readily available, fast.
Half of the 42,773 Americans who died by suicide in 2014 used firearms. And there’s some evidence that making guns harder to access would help reduce those deaths. If people are forced to take extra time and effort before suicide attempts, they’re overwhelmingly likely to change their mind, according to a massive 2008 study on guns and suicide.
“Studies show that most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair. Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide,” David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard and director of the school’s Injury Control Research Center, wrote in that study.
The study found a strong link between gun ownership and suicide risk. States with higher rates of gun ownership have significantly higher rates of suicide, and states with lower rates of gun ownership correspondingly have lower rates of suicide.
Guns, however, remain easier to access — and less stigmatized in U.S. society — than mental health counseling for most of the population. And in a country that is at an overall higher suicide risk than the rest of the world, veterans distinctly stand out as an at-risk population.
Besides concerns that the legislation goes directly against the current research, advocates also object to the bill as a demonstration of Congress’ priorities. Many veterans don’t have access to the care they need — care that can make a difference when it comes to the high suicide rate.
According to research, the rate of suicide among veterans using VA services increased by 8.8 percent since 2001, and by a devastating 38.6 percent among veterans not using VA services.
“Instead of passing this irresponsible and dangerous legislation, Congress should instead do more to guarantee that all veterans have access to world-class medical and counseling services,” Veterans Coalition for Common Sense wrote to Congress.
The bill passed in the House by 240–175, and will now go to the Senate.