The Pentagon appears ready to take on gun rights advocates this year in order to give commanders the ability to restrict troops at high risk of suicide from keeping their personal firearms easily available in their homes.
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.
But with military suicides continuing to climb, key leaders are not giving up on regaining a tool they considered helpful in saving some troops’ lives.
“There’ll be a broad discussion on that,” Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told Military.com Wednesday, after a senior Pentagon official stressed the importance of the policy at a conference on military and veterans suicide.
Dr. Jonathan Woodson, an Army Reserve brigadier general who serves as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, had told the conference the services must get better at recognizing people at risk of suicide and then doing what they know works to improve the odds.
“In many circumstances, awareness of risk means removing firearms from those who we believe are at risk of harming themselves or others,” he said. “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.”
Those may prove to be fighting words to the NRA, which lobbied for the ban on personal gun restrictions even as the Army revealed its increasing numbers of military suicides and made the link between the deaths and personal weapons.
Former Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, in an interview with CNN, said the best way to reduce suicide among troops is to take the weapons away from those who appear likely to hurt themselves.
“A majority of [suicides] have two things in common, alcohol and a gun,” he told the network. “And when you have somebody that you in fact feel is high risk, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to tell that individual that it would not be a good idea to have a weapon around the house.”
The NRA, however, not only thought it unreasonable, but the director of its lobbying arm called it “preposterous,” arguing Army leaders’ actions were intrusive on soldiers’ rights to own their own guns if they chose.
Chris Cox slammed a proposal to make restrictions that were being applied locally into a military-wide policy.
As a result Cox, the NRA and Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe crafted legislation put into the 2011 defense bill that barred the secretary of defense from issuing any regulation or policy on legally owned personal firearms or ammunition kept by troops or civilian employees off base, or from collecting any information on their guns or ammo.
The Pentagon this month released figures showing that military suicides jumped after leveling off in 2010-11. Figures show that 154 servicemembers took their own lives during the first 155 days of 2012.
“We know that firearms play a prominent role in completed suicides, particularly with males,” Woodson said. “We need to have a straightforward conversation in our community about what actions make a difference, and it is about communities, it’s not about authorities imposing regulations, but about preparing communities to be partners in this process.”