Thanks to National Rifle Association-backed legislation, commanding officers of the gunman responsible for the latest mass shooting at Fort Hood were barred by law from asking him about the privately owned handgun he used to carry out the shooting.
On April 2, Army Spec. Ivan Lopez killed three and wounded 16 others during a rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, before taking his own life. During a press conference that night, Fort Hood's commanding general Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley said that the shooter, a combat veteran, “was undergoing behavioral health and psychiatric treatment for depression and anxiety and a variety of other psychological and psychiatric issues.” Milley also said that the shooter “was currently under diagnosis for [posttraumatic stress disorder], but he had not yet been diagnosed with PTSD” and had reportedly “self-reported a traumatic brain injury” but that “he was not wounded in action [according] to our records.”
Milley also said that the shooter “was using a .45 caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol that was purchased recently in the local area.” He added that the weapon was not registered with Fort Hood, which is a requirement for weapons stored on base, but not for those kept off base (Lopez reportedly lived in an apartment off base). Despite the treatment Lopez was undergoing, his commanding officer would not have been allowed to ask Lopez about this privately owned gun.
In 2011, at the behest of the NRA, the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 was amended to prohibit the Department of Defense from collecting or recording any information “relating to the otherwise lawful acquisition, possession, ownership, carrying, or other use of a privately owned firearm.” In practice, commanders could no longer ask soldiers about privately-owned firearms kept off base. In celebrating the law's enactment, the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, said that the legislation was “developed by NRA-ILA and pro-Second Amendment members of Congress” and that the law would “protect the privacy and Second Amendment rights of gun-owning military personnel and their families.” It is impossible to know whether Lopez's commander was in a position to ask him about privately owned guns, but the circumstances of the shooting do highlight the NRA's nonsensical foray into interfering with the judgment of commanding officers.
At the time senior military leaders objected to the NRA's provision, citing the staggering rate of suicide among soldiers. The Christian Science Monitor reported Army officials worried that the “law will make it virtually impossible to get private weapons out of the hands of some potentially suicidal soldiers” and quoted General Peter Chiarelli, who at the time was the second ranking officer for the Army, who said, “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,” [Chiarelli] 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.”
According to the CS Monitor, commanders can only ask soldiers about private weapons “who appear to be a danger to themselves or others” and “if the soldier denies that he or she is thinking about harming anyone, then the commander cannot pursue the discussion further.” According to Army Secretary John McHugh, a psychiatrist who had examined Lopez found he displayed no “sign of any likely violence either to himself or others.”
During the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference, Media Matters' Lisa Reed, an Air Force veteran, asked then-NRA president David Keene about the NRA's provision limiting gun conversations. Keene said 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 suggestion is incorrect. According to public health experts, nine percent of suicide attempts by all methods are fatal, while suicide attempts with a gun result in death 85 percent of the time. According to a review of 90 studies on the long term outcomes of individuals who previously attempted suicide, 89 to 95 percent did not become future victims of suicide.
The NRA's interference with military commanders' interactions with troops has remained a contentious issue. In 2012, Military.com reported that some senior officials at the Pentagon hoped to reverse the NRA policy and wrote that during a conference on veteran suicide, a senior military doctor stated: “In many circumstances, awareness of risk means removing firearms from those who we believe are at risk of harming themselves or others. I would ask all of you at this conference to commit to making reasonable recommendations that will guide uniform policy that will allow separation of privately owned firearms from those believed to be at risk of suicide.”