The Pentagon’s independent suicide prevention review body has a plan to reduce suicides in the military that involves restricting gun access on military bases, according to a report released Friday.
A majority of suicides in the military involve firearm use, while problems with alcohol abuse and finances were also leading indicators, the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC) report found.
The report offered recommendations to reduce the accessibility of guns on military bases while preserving servicemembers’ rights to carry, including repealing a provision in Congress’ 2013 defense bill that blocked commanders from inquiring about off-base firearms.
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The policies are intended to “slow down access to firearms so that people can in excess survive periods of high risk,” Dr. Craig Bryan, a member of the working group, told reporters.
“Many of us are tired of our friends dying and realize that we have to take on this issue,” he added, saying the military would be largely on board with the recommendations.
Suicide in the military has increased over a 15-year period despite the Department of Defense’s ongoing efforts to root out and address causes, the group found.
The DOD’s separate Defense Suicide Prevention Office found in its latest annual report that active-duty suicides continue to trend upward. In particular, the Army reported 176 suicides in 2021, the latest year for which data is available, up from 174 in 2020 and just 145 the year before.
Two-thirds of suicides among the active-duty population used firearms to take their own lives; that number was 72% for members of the Reserve and 78% for National Guardsmen, according to SPRIRC. In the general public, roughly half of suicides were committed using guns.
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Often commanders discovered a servicemember had obtained a firearm on base only after the member had used it to commit suicide, Bryan said.
Research has shown that people who have access to guns are more likely to reach for them when under periods of intense distress, the commission found.
The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act prohibited military leaders from maintaining records of which servicemembers lawfully acquired or used firearms, a law intended to safeguard military members’ Second Amendment rights. However, the commission found that many commanders felt “handcuffed” from “being able to know who was at elevated risk and to properly assess the safety of their subordinates and personnel,” Bryan said.
Repealing the provision would allow officers to provide “targeted” assistance to a servicemember known to be experiencing a crisis, he added.
Along with striking out the NDAA provision, SPRIRC recommended raising the minimum age for purchasing firearms and ammunition on military bases to 25 years. The commission found that the age of 25 appeared to be an “inflection point;” firearm use increases after the age of 21, while most suicides occur in members below the age of 25, Bryan said.
Other recommendations included building firearm storage facilities outside of barracks.
“They are not strategies for gun control, but they are strategies for enhancing safety,” said Bryan.
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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin established SPRIRC in March 2022, a response to a Congressional directive to conduct a comprehensive review of DOD efforts to address suicide.
In conducting interviews and visits to U.S. installations across the world, researchers found that suicide prevention training was often poorly administered and on-base psychologists felt overworked, a problem exacerbated by slow hiring.
The department’s hierarchical structure can prevent the right people from entering the right positions to administer to servicemembers who show increased risk of suicide, according to the report. Inflexible policies can hamper implementation of some suicide prevention strategies and administrators’ ability to tailor strategies to the needs of individual members.
“The lack of a comprehensive DoD-wide suicide prevention strategy in combination with existing military structure has resulted in a ‘check the block’ approach that does not effectively prevent suicide,” the report said.
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