The pointed reality of guns and suicide

Matt Saintsing
September 06, 2018 - 6:57 pm

Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA


When veterans discuss gun’s it’s often centered around our military service, hunting, or just shooting for fun. And, to be clear, it can definitely be fun. But the problem of guns in veteran suicides can’t be ignored: 2/3 of all veterans who choose to take their own life use a firearm

Suicide is on the rise in the United States, but over the past decade, veterans’ suicide surged higher than civilians’ for the first time ever. And while the reasons why vets are taking their own lives at staggering rates is less than clear, when it comes to suicide prevention we know the following to be true: getting between a suicidal veteran and their guns can literally be a lifesaver. 

Study after study confirms that access to firearms increases the risks of suicide. It is no secret that firearms are the deadliest method of suicide given just how dangerous gunshot wounds are —attempts by cutting, for example, aren’t nearly as deadly. And experience cleaning, operating, and maintaining firearms is a guarantee during military service; it also means veterans know how to use them, and use them well. 

Moreover, researchers know that the decision to end one’s own life is often spontaneous, and if available, firearms are the most fatal and common way one completes suicide. 

“For this reason, eliminating easy access to a gun during a mental health crisis can mean the difference between life and death,” now-retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former vice chief of staff for the Army wrote in an op-ed last year.

Women, in particular, complete suicide at an alarmingly high rate compared to their civilian counterparts. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, women veterans are 1/3 more likely to take their own life with a gun than women who have never worn the uniform. 

Look, even the mere idea of taking away American’s guns is politically radioactive. It conjures images of an overreaching government taking the very liberties away that veterans fought to preserve. 

But suicide prevention is VA’s top clinical priority. And to prevent suicide, we have to understand it. And understanding suicide means confronting the tough realities, including the challenging relationship guns, have on those who choose to take their own life. 

I’m not talking about taking away anyone’s access to guns. Doing so would rob veterans their ability to defend themselves and their family, hunt, or just go to a range and engage in a little trigger-therapy. But what I am advancing, and what I hope you’ll take away, is that we have to be honest about the data at hand. 

If you know someone who is at risk of suicide, or looks as if they’re in a dark place, somehow getting between them and their guns might not such a terrible idea. It could be as innocuous as saying something like, "hey, stay at my place tonight," if you know guns won't be there. Or simply asking someone to go get a beer, or out for a quick bite to eat to ensure firearms aren't within an arm's reach. 

Brave men and women get sent to faraway places and do dangerous missions, risking their lives to protect the freedoms we all cherish. Perhaps when they come home, we should do everything we can do save theirs, including having a rational discussion of gun safety and suicide prevention. 

If you’re a Veteran in crisis or concerned about one, there are helpful, qualified VA responders standing by to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. 

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