Lawmakers Say Military Suicides are Reason to Look at Gun Ownership

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.).