U.S. military aims to prevent suicides by taking soldiers’ private guns away from them
- Pentagon and Congress to back policies encouraging the separation of at-risk soldiers from their private weapons
- Suicide rate among U.S. military staff rising again in 2012, almost half of those committed with personal firearm
- Likely to spark opposition from gun rights groups such as National Rifle Association
With nearly half of all suicides in the U.S. military committed with a privately owned firearm, Congress and the Pentagon are moving to implement policies that will discourage at-risk members of the armed forces from retaining their personal weapons.
As suicides continue to rise in 2012, the Defence Department officials are developing a suicide prevention campaign, part of which will encourage friends and family of the potentially suicidal to convince the soldiers to give up their weapons.
The Pentagon’s move would be hugely controversial as some lobbyists may construe it as gun control.
Gun rights groups – along with many service members themselves – are likely to oppose any policy which could seem to limit a citizen’s private ownership of a firearm.
‘This is not about authoritarian regulation,’ said Dr Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defence for health affairs.
‘It is about the spouse understanding warning signs and, if there are firearms in the home, responsibly separating the individual at risk from the firearm.’
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Dr Woodson said the campaign would also include measures to encourage friends and family of at-risk soldiers to remove possibly dangerous prescription drugs from their homes, but declined to provide any further details.
Another significant step is the fact that Congress appear willing to implement legislation which would allow mental health counsellors and commanders to discuss the issues of privately owned weapons with the troops.
The measure would amend last year’s legislation, that prohibited the Defence Department from collecting information from members of the armed forces about lawfully owned, personal firearms.
The measure was part of the Defence Authorisation Act and was backed by the National Rifle Association. The NRA claimed the provision was in response to efforts by defence officials to maintain records of all firearms owned by their personnel.
The new amendment, which is part of the defence authorisation bill for 2013, has been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate.
It would allow mental health experts and commanders to ask service members about their private firearms if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe the soldier is at ‘high risk’ of harming himself or others.
The NRA are wary over the moves, and have said that, although they are happy for the commanders to ask questions of those they are concerned about, the commanders should not be confiscating firearms.
‘We’re OK with the commanding officer being able to inquire,’ said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA., ‘but they can’t confiscate.’
Senator James M Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who sponsored the 2011 restrictions, said he would support the new amendment ‘if it clears up any confusion.’
‘This is a national tragedy that Congress, all branches of D.O.D. and numerous outside organizations have been working together to solve,’ Mr Inhofe said.
The Senate is not expected to take the bill until after the general election.
Suicides in the US military rose rapidly between 2005 and 2009, and reached 285 active service members, along with 24 reservists in 2009.
The numbers plateaued in 2010 and 2011, but the 2012 figures look set to exceed those of 2009, according to the New York Times.
As of last month, 270 active-duty service members killed themselves this year alone, and half were from the Army.
More than six out of 10 military suicides are by use of firearms, and nearly half of those involve privately owned guns.
Guns are also the most common method of suicide among young males across the country.
When troops are identified as high risk, commanders have the authority to confiscate their service weapons, but under current legislation they can not ask them to hand over their personal firearms.
The rising figures are of greater concern to the military staff considering the efforts from the suicide prevention campaign.
John Ruocco, a helicopter pilot, killed himself in 2005 between deployments in Iraq. His wife, Kim, said he felt unable to seek help.
She said: ‘He was so afraid of how people would view him once he went for help.’
‘He thought that people would think he was weak, that people would think he was just trying to get out of redeploying or trying to get out of service, or that he just couldn’t hack it. In reality, he was sick.
‘He had suffered injury in combat and he had also suffered from depression and let it go untreated for years.’
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