At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). As an Air Force veteran myself, I was specifically interested in learning more about the NRA's support of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011.
What the NRA describes as a "pro-Second Amendment provision" is legislation that prohibits the Defense Department from "collecting or recording any information relating to the otherwise lawful acquisition, possession, ownership, carrying, or other use of a privately owned firearm." In short, the amendment, signed into law along with the underlying act in January 2011, bars commanders from even questioning their troops about privately-owned firearms kept off-base.
The NRA's involvement with this defense legislation rose more than a few eyebrows. Senior military leaders reportedly say the "law will make it virtually impossible to get private weapons out of the hands of some potentially suicidal soldiers." The Christian Science Monitor reported that General Peter Chiarelli, the 2nd ranking officer for the Army, "expressed concern...that this law amounts to a prohibition on commanders engaging in vital discussions with US soldiers about weapons and personal safety":
"I am not allowed to ask a soldier who lives off post whether that soldier has a privately owned weapon," he 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."
During our interview, David Keene, who said his own daughter is in the Army and currently deployed in Afghanistan, was unapologetically sold on the idea that troops "have to deal with their problems, not with the group of tools that they have... if you have depression and depression creates a suicidal situation if you don't have a gun, you'll use something else. And there are a million ways to commit suicide."
Keene's statements fly in the face of analysis by public health experts, who say that many suicide attempts are impulsive and that the high lethality of guns makes suicide attempts using them much more likely to succeed. His claims are also inconsistent with my own experiences as a veteran who deployed to a combat zone.
There is no doubt that troops should seek help from support groups that surround them. But when reports show that in 2010 "service members most frequently used firearms to die by suicide," his statements clearly turn a blind eye to the fact that firearms are the preferred method, out of the "million ways to commit suicide."
The DOD annual suicide event report for 2010 reveals further chilling numbers, such as that "most service members were not known to have communicated their potential for self-harm with others" prior to suicide or suicide attempts, and that "[n]early half of 2010 suicide decedents used non-military issue firearms... to kill themselves."
Research from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health demonstrates the link between guns and suicide. According to a 2008 article from its director, David Hemenway, and assistant director, Matthew Miller, "[d]eciding whether to own a gun entails balancing potential benefits and risks. One of the risks for which the empirical evidence is strongest, and the risk whose death toll is greatest, is that of completed suicide."
Hemenway and Miller explain that firearms availability increases the risk of suicide for three reasons. First, "many suicidal acts -- one third to four fifths of all suicide attempts, according to studies -- are impulsive," with the vast majority of survivors waiting less than 1 hour between the decision to commit suicide and the attempt. Second, many suicide crises are temporary, which is why "more than 90% of people who survive a suicide attempt... do not go on to die by suicide." Third, guns are extremely lethal; "A suicide attempt with a firearm rarely affords a second chance. Attempts involving drugs or cutting, which account for more than 90% of all suicidal acts, prove fatal far less often."
The DOD's 2010 suicide event report supports this analysis. According to the report, 175 service members killed themselves using firearms that year -- 62 percent of the total -- while 40 made unsuccessful attempts to do so. By contrast, drugs and use of sharp or blunt objects were the most frequent method for a suicide attempt. There were 13 successful and 496 unsuccessful attempts by service members to take their lives using drugs; those figures are 2 and 122 for injury with a sharp or blunt object.
This analysis validates Chiarelli's concerns (and he's not alone -- the Center for a New American Security has also called for the amendment's repeal). Most troops that commit suicide or make suicide attempts are not reaching out for help before doing so, choosing to keep their deep suffering to themselves. Most of them do have access to guns in their homes. And the availability of a gun makes a suicide attempt more likely to succeed. The NRA's pushing for this amendment cuts off the ability for commanders to raise concern about these three very risky, and very related factors.
Through my personal experiences while deployed in Kuwait during 2001 and afterwards, I was in no way prepared for the emotional affects that resulted. I was shocked by my deployed unit's sudden Afghanistan intervention following September 11th. I saw things that no briefing or handbook could prepare me for, and internalized the chaos in order to continue to the mission of my unit. Upon return, I told one close co-worker about my troubled thoughts. This was immediately followed by assistance from the support group that was my military family. My First Sergeant further inquired about my issues, and soon after I was receiving professional help, along with the encouraging words of my peers. It's difficult to predict the outcome if my peers and superiors hadn't intervened. The NRA's amendment limits the ability of officers to take every step possible to help those under their command.
This amendment isn't the only way the NRA seeks to further their mission focusing on U.S. troops.
The NRA touts a website boldly titled: "NRA Life of Duty," meant to target service members and sponsored by the firearms supplier Brownells. Upon visiting the page, your eyes are immediately drawn to an entire section devoted to NRA board member Oliver North's photo ops with deployed troops. The site does provide helpful links to resources for both active servicemen and veterans, ranging from military history to the Stars and Stripes publication to links for veteran support. But spending only a few minutes on this website reveals that the site also provides links to varying sniper communities, weapons reviews, super sales for tactical gear, places to purchase firearm munitions, and hunting events.
Besides a link to the Veterans Administration, there are no noticeable links on the website related to dealing with PTSD after deployment, which can heavily contribute to a service member taking their life with a firearm.
It appears as though the NRA is not only pushing legislation that top military commanders say make it harder to prevent soldier suicides, but is also heavily invested in marketing weapons-related products and services to U.S. troops, whose #1 suicide method is with a bullet through the head. This can't bode well for the future of troops returning fresh off the battlefield -- many of whom return with the deepest and most invisible wounds.
Here's the complete video of my discussion with Keene:
Matt Gertz provided additional research for this post.