WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of 36 lawmakers is pushing for new rules allowing military commanders and mental health specialists to ask unstable troops whether they own any personal firearms, in an effort to reduce military suicides.
The idea was included in the House version of the annual defense authorization bill earlier this spring but was left out of the Senate version. Lawmakers from both chambers are working on a final compromise version of the legislation this week.
The new language would allow military commanders, counselors and mental health therapists to speak with distressed and disturbed servicemembers about firearms they own, where they are and places they could safely secure those weapons.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who sponsored the language in the House bill, said the goal is not to limit individuals’ gun rights or ability to own a firearm.
“Prohibiting commanders and mental health professionals from helping soldiers defies common sense and dangerously interferes with our obligation to ensure the health, welfare, morale and well-being of the troops,” he said in a statement. “Military suicide is a complex problem that demands a range of actions to address it.
“This common sense provision adds another tool to help prevent tragic deaths.”
The problem stems from a provision in the 2011 Defense Authorization Act, which stated that the Defense Department “shall not prohibit, issue any requirement relating to, or collect or record any information” about troop’s privately owned firearms.
The measure was put in place in response to concerns that military officials were tracking troops’ privately owned guns.
But mental health advocates have complained that the language has left them confused on how to discuss gun safety with troops struggling with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses.
Johnson's staff said the new language would clarify that commanders and counselors can have those conversations with at-risk troops and suggest – but not mandate – those individuals use gun locks or give up their private weapons.
Earlier this week, former Army generals Dennis Reimer and Peter Chiarelli penned an editorial in the Washington Post calling for the change, calling it a common-sense approach to help prevent suicides.
But gun rights advocates have opposed the idea, saying it could lead to commanders intimidating some individuals into giving up personal weapons.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., disputed those arguments.
“Often it’s the commanding officers who are in the best position to make a difference and to help save lives,” he said in a statement. “We owe it to our brave men and women in uniform to do all we can to help them make safe and responsible decisions when they are struggling.”
A decision on whether to include the language in the final defense authorization bill is expected in the next few days.