Campaigns promoting the safe storage of firearms to prevent suicide and accidents appear to work on military personnel and veterans, but how the message is crafted has a clear impact on effectiveness, new research has found.
With more than 6,700 service members and veterans having taken their own lives in 2020, roughly two-thirds of whom died by firearm, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have embraced initiatives to encourage gun safety to reduce the number of deaths.
The efforts in the past several years have included public service announcements, handouts, information on gun lockers and locks, and even distribution of such safety devices by the services and the VA.
Whether the messaging can sway a population that belongs to a weapons-based profession, with many current and former service members owning personal firearms for hunting and recreational use, remained to be determined
Researchers, led by Michael Anestis at Rutgers University's School of Public Health, sought to figure out the answer to that question and which campaigns would be most effective as the VA and military continue to push for the expansion of gun safety initiatives and outreach.
The message is important, according to a 2018 Rand Corp. study, because suicide often doesn't involve extensive planning and anything that can cause a delay can save lives.
"Suicide attempts are impulsive acts that may never be repeated if the first attempt fails," the study found. "Because those who impulsively attempt suicide with a gun rarely get a chance to reconsider the decision, it is reasonable to suspect that when guns are less available, fewer suicide attempts will result in fatality."
The authors of the new messaging study agreed, noting that roughly 33% of veteran firearm owners stored at least one weapon loaded and unlocked, and 86% of service members who reported they had suicidal thoughts also stored their firearms loaded and unlocked.
"The lack of safe firearm storage among firearm-owning active duty military service members and veterans highlights a failure in messaging," they wrote in their study, published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open, a journal of the American Medical Association. "Broader public health messaging thus may be a pivotal suicide prevention tool, however, limited data exist to guide development and implementation."
The scientists recruited 367 service members who did not endorse safe firearm storage, and showed them 12 messages about safe firearms storage -- slides that contained an image of a service member in an armory with two messages overlaid on it: "Suicide has been the No. 1 cause of death for service members over the past three years and 60% of those deaths were by personal firearms;" and "Simple steps can save lives. To prevent suicide, store your firearms unloaded, separate from ammunition, in a locked location and store them away from home during times of stress."
But then they varied the messages slightly -- changing the occupation of the troop in the armory to a physician, combat controller or a security force soldier, mixing in messages that validated firearms ownership ("As a firearm owner, you understand the importance of safety as well as anyone,") or contained a personal safety message, mentioning that alarm systems and dogs are effective ways to secure one's home.
After crunching the response data, they found the gun-friendly and home protection messages, regardless of messenger, prompted more reception to safe storage at home.
But they also noticed nuances, like service members being more receptive to locking devices when shown the physician as the messenger with the gun-friendly message, or when the security forces and combat controller did not carry the gun-friendly message, or when the security force soldier was paired with the home-protection message.
Different combinations also were found to be more successful in encouraging the use of gun safes or simply for storing firearms separately from ammunition.
None of the combinations appeared to influence the participants' willingness to store their firearms outside their homes, although some participants seemed more amenable to taking them to a friend or family member rather than store them at a facility such as a range locker.
"Overall, firearm owning service members appear more open to adopting in-home than outside-of-home firearm storage practices for suicide prevention," the authors wrote. "This finding may indicate that promoting in-home storage would be more impactful initially and heightens the importance of finding a path toward making outside-of-home storage more palatable."
The study had its share of limitations, namely that it indicated service members were willing to consider adopting safe storage practices but did not show if they followed through. It also did not explore the demographics of the participants, so it did not show which messages may be more influential on subsets of the military population.
However, the authors wrote, the results provided useful information for crafting public health messaging.
"The findings highlight the potential utility of a scalable intervention -- visual messages on safe firearm storage -- in prompting behavior changes," they wrote.
The research was supported in part by the Military Suicide Research Consortium, a DoD initiative to help reduce the number of military suicides.
Safe storage campaigns are not new to the Pentagon. The National Guard Bureau embraced them in the early 2010s as part of its Yellow Ribbon program to support returning Guard members. At the time, the Army and Air National Guards had the highest rates of suicide among the service components.
Last year, the VA began airing public service announcements and posting billboards to encourage safe storage of firearms, and last November, the White House announced that various federal agencies, including the VA, DoD and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, would coordinate their efforts to encourage safe storage.
Earlier this month, the Department of the Navy joined the VA to distribute 200,000 gun locks at VA facilities nationwide and at Navy Fleet and Family Support Centers as well as Marine Corps Community Services offices.
The VA announced in September that suicides were down in 2020 among veterans by nearly 10% from 2018 and are at their lowest level since 2006.
Shortly after the release of the VA's 2020 suicide report, Secretary Denis McDonough pointed to the downward trend, saying in a meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26 that suicide is preventable.
"We are making progress, but we have a long way to go," McDonough said.
Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 988, Press 1. They also can text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.