VA Sets Sights on Firearm Safety to Prevent Veteran Suicides

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A man walks in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters.
A man wearing a protective mask walks in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters building in Washington, D.C., on May 28, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Stephen J. Caruso)

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs is prioritizing firearm safety as a way to prevent veteran suicides, arguing the method that veterans use should be a focus along with the underlying reasons that drive them to take their own lives.

Veterans continue to use firearms more than any other means of suicide. According to a VA report released earlier this month, firearms were used in 69.9% of veteran suicides in 2018 and 70.2% in 2019. That's higher than the rest of the U.S. population, in which firearms were used in about 50% of suicides.

"What you can do in suicide prevention is yes, explore the risks, preventative factors, explore policy and interventions, but as we're exploring the 'whys' of suicide, don't forget the 'how,'" said Matthew Miller, executive director of the VA's suicide prevention program. "When the 'how' is 70% of the time explained by one thing -- a firearm -- that suggests it's a very important area to focus on."

Miller, speaking Wednesday to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the VA was "addressing this issue aggressively" by teaching lethal means safety, which is a voluntary action that veterans can take to reduce their suicide risk by limiting their access to firearms.

Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said he supported the idea of safe storage of weapons, but he voiced concerns about any potential restrictions placed on veterans owning firearms.

"The mandated removal or restrictions on firearms by veterans who seek help would be very counter-productive and, quite frankly, would be completely unacceptable to many members of this committee," Rosendale said. "I want to make sure where we're headed in order to address this problem without infringing on the rights of our veterans."

Miller countered the VA was not considering any attempt to place restrictions on gun ownership.

Citing studies, the VA said the time between someone deciding to attempt suicide and that person taking action is sometimes less than 10 minutes. The department is teaching veterans to store their guns locked and unloaded while not in use, Miller said. Ammunition should be stored separately.

"Safety, in this context, is defined as time and space between the person, the firearm and ammunition during critical points in time," he said. "Ten to 20 minutes can be life-saving."

Firearm safety was listed as the first priority in the VA's initiative "Suicide Prevention Now," which specifically targets veterans at high risk for suicide. In February 2020, the VA started advertisements about firearm safety.

The department in October 2020 also started a training course on firearm safety that's required of all VA health care providers. The training teaches providers to counsel patients on firearm access and safe storage. By the beginning of August, 145,690 employees had completed the course.

Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., argued Wednesday that the VA's efforts weren't enough. The department should require the training of all health care providers who interact with VA patients, she said. Underwood introduced the Lethal Means Safety Act earlier this year to require the training for private-sector doctors who are contracted with the VA to treat veterans.

"My act expands the courses to ensure that anyone who regularly interacts with veterans are prepared to have a conversation that could save a veteran's life," Underwood said.

Miller said the VA established a goal to extend the training to health care providers in the department's community care program. The VA is also considering a "preferred provider" system, in which certain private-sector doctors would be given a "preferred" status once they complete the firearm safety training.

Rajeev Ramchand, a senior behavioral scientist at Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank, testified Wednesday. Citing a 2015 study, he said 45% of veterans owned at least one firearm, but less than 25% of the gun owners stored their firearms locked and unloaded.

He suggested the VA collect better and more timely data about gun ownership among veterans and how veterans store their firearms.

"Without timely data ... it will be impossible to know whether the [VA's] efforts are effective at changing veterans' firearm storage practices," Ramchand said.

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