Gun restrictions crucial for combating service member suicides, Pentagon report says
Stars and Stripes February 24, 2023
WASHINGTON — The military needs to restrict firearm access in barracks and dorms and institute an age limit and waiting period for gun purchases on bases to combat suicide among service members, according to a Pentagon report released Friday.
The outsized role of firearms in the military’s suicide crisis led to the gun safety recommendations issued by the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee, a group convened by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last year to find ways to reverse a 15-year upward trend in military suicides.
“What we learned over the past year was that a significant percentage of on-base suicides involve firearms purchased on base at military exchanges,” said committee member Craig Bryan, an Air Force veteran and a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University. “When we look at the science of suicide prevention, there's arguably only one thing that all researchers agree on, and that one thing is that taking steps to slow down convenient access to highly lethal methods like firearms is the single most effective strategy for saving lives.”
Guns are involved in 66% of active-duty suicides, 72% of suicides among Reserve members and 78% of suicides involving members of the National Guard, according to the report. Among the general public, only about half of suicides involve a firearm, Bryan said.
Visits by the committee to nine military installations, including three in Alaska and one in South Korea, showed service members could purchase firearms with an ease that could prove deadly for troops in acute mental distress, according to the committee.
“There's a very strong scientific basis showing that waiting periods even as short as seven days significantly reduce suicide rates,” Bryan said. “We were hearing of many instances of people walking into a base exchange and not only purchasing the firearm but also purchasing the ammunition at the same time and then walking out.”
The committee is recommending the Defense Department implement a 7-day waiting period for purchases of firearms on military property and an additional 4-day waiting period for buying ammunition. It is also calling for raising the minimum age for purchasing both to 25.
Pentagon statistics from the past decade show an inflection point at the age of 21 when service members begin heavily using guns to die by suicide, Bryan said. That age corresponds to the minimum age for handgun purchases in many jurisdictions, he said. By age 25, firearms are involved in 60% to 70% of all service member suicides. About half of all military suicides are among 17- to 25-year-olds, he said.
“If we want to have a meaningful impact on suicide prevention, we would probably want to target that youngest age group,” Bryan said.
The report also recommends the repeal of a law that prohibited the defense secretary and other military leaders from maintaining records of which service members lawfully acquired and possessed firearms.
Congress included the provision in its annual defense policy bill about a decade ago to protect the Second Amendment rights of service members, Bryan said. But the law unintentionally “handcuffed” military leaders from assessing the safety of their subordinates and knowing who was at elevated risk of suicide, he said.
“I was really struck by how often we heard stories from military leaders and senior NCOs saying, in essence, ‘I’m not allowed to ask and sort of keep track of who are my most vulnerable and highest risk service members,’” Bryan said. “As a result, when we lose service members in our units to firearm suicide, there's often this sense of, 'We could have done more, we could have gotten involved, we could have helped them to secure and lock up their firearms more safely.’”
Military leaders interviewed for the report said they wanted to encourage a culture of secure firearm storage, which varied widely across installations. Some prohibit the possession and storage of firearms in barracks and dorms but there is no uniform policy for all military property, according to Bryan.
The committee is recommending the Defense Department require everyone living in military housing to store all privately owned firearms in a locked safe or another locking device. U.S. households that own firearms and store them safely reduce the risk of someone in the home dying by suicide by 50%, Bryan said.
“We would want to set up rules that say, ‘You cannot keep your personally owned firearms here but you can safely and securely store them in other places,’” he said. “The Department of Defense needs to provide options.”
Bryan stressed the recommendations are not strategies for gun control, a politically charged issue that Republicans have traditionally opposed. He instead likened the proposals to the comprehensive safety requirements that the Pentagon already has for service members operating motorcycles, for example.
“What we were hoping to do is capture this sort of spirit, this commitment to a culture of safety and leverage that as a platform for thinking in a very similar way about firearms safety, while being able to balance the absolute need to protect and respect the civil liberties that are enshrined in our Constitution,” he said.
Bryan said his experiences in the Air Force have shown that the military community is more open to firearm safeguards than civilians, largely because members are tired of their friends and loved ones dying from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
“So many of us who have served have lost friends to suicide and so many of those suicides involved firearms that we recognize that there is a connection between the two,” he said. “Over and over, we heard over this past year, ‘You know, I didn't see it coming. My friend seemed OK. But they had a gun and they died.’”