Army Gun Control: Suicides at Lewis-McChord, Elsewhere, Prompt a Plan to Restrict Weapons

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After another upsurge in military suicides, including a record number last year at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Pentagon is weighing a kind of Catch 22 for its armed warriors: restricting their access to weapons. Though the National Rifle Association has protested the plan as unconstitutional, guns are used in two out of three military suicides, and the Department of Defense thinks it can reduce such deaths by limiting weapons access at military homes.

"In many circumstances," said Defense Department assistant secretary Dr. Jonathan Woodson at a conference on military and veterans suicides last week, "awareness of risk means removing firearms from those who we believe are at risk of harming themselves or others.

"I would ask all of you at this conference to commit to making reasonable recommendations that will guide uniform policy that will allow separation of privately owned firearms from those believed to be at risk of suicide."

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki later confirmed to military.com there would be a "broad discussion" of just how the military version of gun control would work.

Some Army leaders had previously encouraged troops to use gun locks on their weapons at home, or recommended that high-risk troops lock up their personal weapons on base if they were believed to be high risk. But the National Rifle Association and gun advocates objected and Congress barred that practice in last year's defense authorization bill.

Proposed restrictions would include removing personal weapons from the homes of any service member thought to be suicidal, an approach the NRA and others see as a violation of gun rights.

Military suicides, after leveling off in recent years, jumped 50 percent with 154 service members taking their lives in the first 155 days of 2012. At Lewis-McChord last year, more troops died by suicide (13) than in combat (nine).

In a study released earlier this year entitled Suicide and the United States Army, retired Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie reports:

After reviewing hundreds of suicide cases, I am convinced that the easy availability of weapons is a major part of the problem. According to the Army's database, about 70 percent of Army suicides are committed with a firearm. In the theater of war, guns are normally the government-issued weapon. Stateside, a gun is usually the privately owned weapon. The gun in the nightstand is too easy to pull out and use when a person is angry or humiliated or fighting with a spouse. Yet discussion of access to weapons is the third rail in the military--it is not often brought up in formal mitigation strategies.

When the Pentagon first brought up the restrictions last year, an NRA official called the plan "preposterous" and a violation of the 2nd Amendment, and the subject was back-burnered.

In his study, Ritchie laments the lack of regulations to keep guns from suicidal soldiers.

"The military," he writes, "offers no public safety campaigns about the problems of easy access to weapons in the context of volatile relationships or other reintegration problems.... In order to address the epidemic of suicides in the military, we need to take a public health, or population-based, approach. All soldiers--and other service members--are at risk. Soldiers are a proud lot. If they are humiliated, publicly or privately, and if a weapon is available, they may use it on themselves."

They "rarely use it on others," he adds, "though tragic events," such as the case of mentally ill Sgt. John Russell, now awaiting courts-martial at Lewis-McChord for killing five fellow service members, "do sometimes occur."

 
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