U.S. service members who keep thoughts of suicide to themselves are less likely to properly store their firearms, new research has found.
A small study focusing on 719 active-duty, reserve and National Guard firearm owners found that, of nearly 39% who said they had experienced suicidal thoughts in the previous year, those who said they sought mental health treatment were more likely to report storing their firearms safely.
Those who hid their suicidal thoughts or didn't seek therapy demonstrated a propensity not to store their firearms safely, meaning they didn’t use a trigger lock, cable device, gun safe or case.
The new research underscores that officials need to keep working to convince all service members to properly store firearms, study lead author Michael Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University, said in an interview.
"We have to move beyond only trying to prevent suicide once we know somebody is at risk," he said. "You don't buy a fire extinguisher when your house is on fire, you buy it ahead of time."
Suicide attempts are frequently impulsive acts that, when a firearm is involved, often result in death. Owning a handgun, for example, carries an eight-fold risk of suicide for men and 35 times the risk for women in the United States, according to research published in 2020 by Stanford University.
Locking up weapons likely would decrease suicides among service members and protect others in the military community, Anestis said.
"This is not a political effort to diminish firearm ownership or judge firearm ownership," Anestis said. "It's simply trying to find ways to help firearms owners stay safe from an outcome that often isn't part of the decision-making process."
More than 500 service members died by suicide in 2021, including 328 active- duty, 74 Reserve and 117 National Guard members, with roughly 64% using a firearm.
In 2020 -- the most recent year for which the Department of Veterans Affairs has published data on known suicides in the veteran community -- 6,146 former service members died by suicide, 71% of whom used a firearm.
The percentage is significantly higher than the use of a firearm in suicide by the general U.S. population, which sits at roughly 48%.
To address this high proportion of service members and veterans who use firearms to complete a suicide, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have embarked on campaigns to promote safe storage of firearms in homes.
The study results were gleaned from broader research that looked at the most effective campaigns for promoting safe storage of firearms to military personnel and veterans.
A survey asked participants how specifically they stored their personal weapons, whether they had suicidal thoughts, if they had told anyone about their thoughts, and if they sought medical care or therapy for their mental health.
The researchers found that those who had thought about suicide in the past year but hadn't disclosed that to anyone locked their firearms less frequently than others but also were less likely to store their guns loaded.
Service members who said they shared their thoughts with others were more likely to lock up their guns at home.
The findings were similar when the authors focused on service members who said they'd had suicidal thoughts in the past month. Those who didn't disclose their thoughts were less likely to lock up their weapons but also were more likely to store their firearms unloaded.
Anestis said the research supports previous studies that show firearms-owning service members with recent suicidal thoughts were more likely to store their firearms unsafely. But the research shows that those who are less likely to be seen at high risk, because they haven't told anyone about their issues, have easier access to firearms, he said.
"We cannot assume that we know who is at greatest risk; in fact, the reason we so often say 'We didn't see this coming' when someone dies by suicide might be because they weren't telling us," he added.
Anestis said the research demonstrates the need for a shift of the overall attitude toward firearms storage, with unloaded weapons locked up in a safe or case being accepted nationwide as the norm.
He likened the needed cultural shift to that of coughing or sneezing into one's elbow instead of hands.
"Now, we are sneezing into our elbows because if you sneeze into your hands, we thought it was safe, but it's not, it’s spreading germs all over the place. Small shifts are what we are trying to encourage," Anestis said.
The study had its limitations, researchers said, to include that it involved a small sample size. And, as structured, it didn't allow for an investigation in to whether storage practices changed before or after a service member experienced suicidal thoughts.
But the research demonstrated that without addressing safe storage for everyone who owns a firearm, suicide prevention efforts will miss a large portion of those who are at risk -- those who have hidden their suicidal thoughts and have a weapon readily available, Anestis said
The research was funded by the Military Suicide Research Consortium and published Monday online in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.
Military personnel and veterans in crisis can get support 24 hours a day, seven days a week by dialing 988 and pressing 1. Help also is available by testing 838255 or visiting the Veterans Crisis Line webpage.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.