Last year, the National Rifle Association identified what was to them a crisis: "certain military base commanders, exercising arbitrary authority given them under military law and regulations, have issued orders violating military personnel's Second Amendment rights." NRA was particularly worried about restrictions on privately-owned firearms that soldiers kept off-base.
In response, NRA pushed a law which top military commanders fear puts U.S. troops in greater danger of suicide. Under the law, adopted as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011, the Defense Department may 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" by a member of the Armed Forces.
According to the Army's second-highest-ranking officer, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, this prevents commanders from engaging in important discussions with soldier about weapons safety, which may put them at higher risk of suicide:
"I am not allowed to ask a soldier who lives off post whether that soldier has a privately owned weapon," [Chirarelli] says.
While commanders are permitted to ask troops who appear to be a danger to themselves or others about private firearms - or to suggest perhaps locking them temporarily in a base depot - if the soldier denies that he or she is thinking about harming anyone, then the commander cannot pursue the discussion further.
Nearly half of all soldiers who commit suicide use a firearm, General Chiarelli points out. He added that "suicide in most cases is a spontaneous event" that is often fueled by drugs and alcohol. But "if you can separate the individual from the weapon," he added, "you can lower the incidences of suicide."
The problem, Chiarelli said, is that "we have issues in even being able to do that."
Active duty Army suicide rates have more than doubled since 2004. According to a new report from the Center for a New American Security, "[f]rom 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours."
Chiarelli's analysis is backed by public health experts who say that some suicides are preventable. According to Harvard School of Public Health professor David Hemenway, "Studies show that most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair. Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide."