The Army today released its updated suicide data through the end of November: 177 potential active-duty suicides; 113 of these confirmed as suicides and 64 under investigation.
In 2011, there were 165 Army suicides. With other branches of the Armed Forces, the Army has multiple programs under way in an effort to reduce these statistics, from crisis counseling to suicide prevention training for families.
But some lawmakers see this tragic trend as reason to pinpoint gun ownership in the defense authorization bill that headed to conference.
Conference committee selections were finalized this week to hammer out differences between the bills passed in the House and Senate.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) urged their colleagues to include an amendment that would allow military officials to ask service members about their private gun ownership.
It amends the 2011 defense authorization to, as stated in Sec. 1071 of the House-passed version, “authorize a mental health professional that is a member of the Armed Forces or a civilian employee of the Department of Defense or a commanding officer to inquire if a member of the Armed Forces plans to acquire, or already possesses or owns, a privately-owned firearm, ammunition, or other weapon, if such mental health professional or such commanding officer has reasonable grounds to believe such member is at high risk for suicide or causing harm to others.”
The 2011 bill stated that the Defense Department “shall not prohibit, issue any requirement relating to, or collect or record any information relating to the otherwise lawful acquisition, possession, ownership, carrying, or other use of a privately owned firearm, privately owned ammunition, or another privately owned weapon by a member of the Armed Forces or civilian employee of the Department of Defense on property.”
Johnson and Kerry contend this provision is confusing and commanding officers could encourage such service members to store their firearms in a military facility or install gun locks. “A statutory clarification would alleviate any ambiguity,” they said.
“This is not an attempt to limit gun rights or an individual’s ability to own a firearm,” said Johnson. “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. 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.”
“We’ve come a long way since Vietnam in looking for and treating the invisible wounds left by months and years of combat, but we need to be even more vigilant about the signs that some in uniform are facing great difficulty. As of June, suicides were up 18 percent over the same period the year before – that’s a frightening figure but more importantly it needs to be a wake-up call,” Kerry said.
“Often it’s the commanding officers who are in the best position to make a difference and to help save lives,” the senator added. “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.”
The lawmakers, along with an unnamed “bipartisan group of 34 senators and representatives,” penned a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services committees: Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Reps. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
“Nearly three quarters of the military suicides that occurred between 2008 and 2010 were committed with a personal firearm,” they wrote. “Amending this language would simply reaffirm and clarify the ability of military commanders and those tasked with protecting our service members, who identify someone that may be at risk, to discuss personally-owned weapons and perhaps suggest the safe storage of this weapon in a military facility or even the use of a gunlock. This sensible approach does not attempt to limit an individual’s 2nd amendment rights.”
“So often these suicides are unplanned, so delaying the act, even by a short time can mean the difference between life and death,” Kerry and Johnson’s letter adds. “…The bonds of service are important, especially when an individual is feeling isolated, angry or depressed. That is why it is critical that military commanders have the ability to talk to those at risk about their personal firearms.”
They cite Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former Army vice chief of staff, as stating in a January Christian Science Monitor article, “When you have somebody that you in fact feel is high risk, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to tell that individual that it would not be a good idea to have a weapon around the house.”
Johnson and Kerry included a letter from former military commanders supporting “fixing this language” about gun rights in the 2011 bill.
“We so often hear that we must listen to military commanders ‘on the ground’ and that those in command know what’s best for our troops,” they wrote. “So let’s listen to what they are saying and protect our men and women in uniform from the deadly threat of suicide.”
This comes on the heels of Senate Republicans’ failed attempt to put language in the defense bill that would have stopped the Veterans Affairs Department from putting the names of vets deemed too mentally incompetent to handle their finances into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to prohibit them from buying or owning a gun.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has tried for years to repeal this power of the VA, contending vets should be able to have the registry listing clear a court before being stripped of their gun rights.
Burr’s Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act passed the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee but has never gotten a floor vote.
Backed by 21 co-sponsors, including Democrats Jim Webb (Va.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) and Independent Joe Lieberman (Conn.), the bill amends U.S. Code to clarify the conditions under which a service member may be treated as adjudicated mentally incompetent.
“In any case arising out of the administration by the Secretary of laws and benefits under this title, a person who is mentally incapacitated, deemed mentally incompetent, or experiencing an extended loss of consciousness shall not be considered adjudicated as a mental defective under subsection (d)(4) or (g)(4) of section 922 of title 18 without the order or finding of a judge, magistrate, or other judicial authority of competent jurisdiction that such person is a danger to himself or herself or others.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), another co-sponsor of the Burr bill, tried to add an amendment with similar language to the defense authorization.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) opposed Coburn’s failed effort. “I love our veterans, I vote for them all the time. They defend us,” he said. “If you are a veteran or not and you have been judged to be mentally infirm, you should not have a gun.”