Suicide is the third-leading noncombat cause of death in the U.S. military, according to Department of the Army data. On at least one Army post, the response was a misguided effort to require some soldiers to register personal firearms.
The Army would not tell us how many soldiers have used private weapons to kill themselves. In the general population, firearms account for about half of all suicides nationwide each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, owning a firearm doesn’t raise the risk of playing Russian roulette, just as owning a car doesn’t increase the risk of intentionally driving off a cliff in desperation like Thelma and Louise. There is an underlying intention that manifests from what physicians call “suicidal ideation,” which is the process of thinking about and planning to end one’s life.
Some overzealous Army commanders appear to categorize private gun ownership, rather than depression and desperation, as the problem. In March, soldiers in Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., were told they would have to start registering their privately owned arms with their command. Post spokesman Cathy Gramling told us that the order came from the “subordinate unit commander.” The soldiers also were told to provide the storage location of their personal weapons along with information on their state-issued concealed carry permits. Ms. Gramling told us the commander who spearheaded the effort thought he was acting within his authority to address “a number of negligent discharges of privately owned weapons.” The program has since been suspended.
An Army spokesman did not respond to repeated inquiries about the number of times such efforts to collect soldiers’ personal gun-ownership data have occurred. However, he confirmed that it has happened before and acknowledged that it has been at least partially driven by the Army’s suicide problem. “Every so often, this story bubbles up, and it is perceived to be an Army directive,” Army spokesman Lt. Col. Nathan Banks told us. While noting that the Army does not have a directive or policy on the subject, he defended such registration efforts. “Based upon the recent high number of [personally owned weapons] accidents and fatalities, unit commanders are trying to determine just how many of their soldiers have” such weapons, he said.
The suicide problem is particularly acute in the Army, where at least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Last year saw the fourth straight annual increase. There were 67 suicides in 2004, according to Army data, and 60 in 2003, the year the United States invaded Iraq. There already have been 56 reported Army suicides through March of this year.
The needless loss of one life is one too many, but the Army trend is particularly worrisome. In 2008, the rate was 20.2 suicides per 100,000 soldiers, higher than the 11.1 per 100,000 national civilian average and higher than the roughly 19 per 100,000 civilian average when adjusted for the same gender and age group, according to the Army and the latest CDC data. The Army rate is a sharp increase from 16.8 per 100,000 in 2007 and 12.7 in 2005. In 2001, there were just 9.1 suicides per 100,000 soldiers.
Finding detailed information on the Army’s suicide problem proved incredibly difficult. Army public affairs officials failed to respond to repeated requests over several weeks for details about the severity of the suicide problem, particularly those involving personal weapons. However, Mark Bates, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is a clinical psychologist and interim director for resilience and prevention at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury - which oversees the Department of Defense’s suicide prevention efforts — told us that guns “are one of the top lethal means” for military suicides.
Lt. Col. Bates also noted that in order to establish something as a risk factor, you need to know how many people who experience a certain factor commit suicide and how many do not. If gun ownership is considered a risk factor, it is relevant that all soldiers are issued firearms at some point during their service.
Other factors come into play as well. While careful not to address the Army’s registration efforts as each service branch controls its own internal affairs, Lt. Col. Bates said a number of causal factors ranging from health and family issues to the impacts of battle can contribute to suicidal behavior. “We have to be really careful,” he said when asked if gun ownership is a possible risk factor. “We hear about the suicides involving certain issues, and it seems there has to be a connection. It appeals to internal logic, but if you look at the data, it can be surprising.” Forget anti-gun or pro-gun ideology. Soldiers have access to firearms every day; it is unlikely that storing their own guns legally at home is a real risk factor.
The Defense Department can be applauded for some of its suicide-prevention efforts, including an advertising campaign to persuade fighters - toughened by battle in Iraq and Afghanistan - that it is OK to seek help fighting depression. The Army also has an unprecedented five-year, $50 million partnership with the National Institute of Mental Health aimed at providing a better understanding of why soldiers commit suicide. Still, more needs to be done. Something significant has changed in the lives of too many of our soldiers. The Army needs to find it and fix it before more die.
Registering guns is not the answer.