Pentagon Commissioned Report Recommends Restricting Gun Rights of Service Members to Curb Suicide Rates

Spc. Creighton Holub, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My husband and I collectively dedicated 37 years to the United States military. During that time, we both witnessed and experienced the loss of fellow brothers and sisters in arms. It’s bad enough to lose one of your own in battle, but it’s exponentially worse to lose one to suicide.

Between the two of us, we witnessed and knew a total of six suicides. In just over a year since my retirement, I know of one fellow veteran who couldn’t cope with life outside of the uniform and chose to end it prematurely. Unfortunately, the decades-long scourge of military and veteran suicide has yet to be adequately answered. Those of us who served in the last two decades know that the endless cycle of ineffective methods to curb this dark trend is a mere checkbox that does nothing to save the lives of those who have given so much.

A recent report commissioned by the Pentagon has some suggestions on possibly bringing down the suicide rate of those younger troops, but are these recommendations anything new? Are they even going to be effective? Let’s take a look.

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A Bandage at Best

The Department of Defense formed the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC) in 2020. The SPRIRC’s recent report to the Pentagon had some eyebrow-raising suggestions, including “On DOD property, raise the minimum age for purchasing firearms and ammunition to 25 years.”

Currently, military members and veterans can purchase firearms on base at what is known as Base Exchanges, where items are often cheaper than off base at places like Cabela’s, for example. The idea here would be that if you want to purchase guns or ammo on base, you must be 25 years or older, which is different from the rule of the land everywhere else.

Additionally, the report recommends implementing a “7-day waiting period for any firearm purchased on DOD property” and a “4-day waiting period for ammunition purchases on DOD property.” The Data shows that two-thirds of active duty members and veterans commit suicide with guns.

Panel member and safety expert Craig Bryan explain the intent of these recommendations, stating they are “taking steps to slow down convenient access to highly lethal methods like firearms is the single-most effective strategy for saving lives.” But would these Constitutionally questionable at best measures get to the root cause of suicide in the military or does it merely attempt to kick the inevitable can down the road?

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Deeper Than Access

To the committee’s credit, they acknowledge the complexities of this problem, stating “In this report, the SPRIRC emphasized that effectively preventing and responding to suicide will require a multifactorial approach, as deaths by suicide among service members are complex; thus simple or singular strategies will not work.”

As someone touched by suicide numerous times while in uniform, as a random bystander whose new roommate opted to end their life, a friend whose coworker chose the same, and as a leader who dealt with it in their unit, I can tell you that there is no easy way to prevent or respond to this trend.

The reasons service members and veterans choose to end their lives range from financial issues, relationship issues, being overworked, grappling with sexual assault, and harassment. In some instances, there are no warning signs or apparent reason for the act, which I can assure you acts not just as a wrecking ball for the family but as if a magnitude nine earthquake hits the unit.

A common trend I found in my life experience with suicide in the service might surprise some of you who have never served. As counselor Kayla Arestivo explains, “Any family that I speak with that has lost a service member to suicide has always some story about how their loved one was really struggling with toxic leadership.”

As a leader, I was always forced to balance holding those troops who either broke the law or didn’t cut it in the service with my Commanding officer’s fear that they may choose to take their lives if we took any action. That often meant piling on more work on those troops who would follow the rules and work hard.

The effect that had on a friend of mine, the pressure of carrying the weight of her own job coupled with that of two others, was too much for her to bear, and the world is lesser for it. On the flip side, many of us, including myself, have been on the receiving end of ‘leaders’ high on their rank who take part in workplace bullying that often blurs the lines into hazing. 

Is anything being done to solve the underlying reasons why young heroes opt to take their lives?

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By the Numbers

The suggestions I touched on sound an awful lot like gun control and have many wondering why we would restrict the constitutional rights of service members who are actively protecting and defending this same right for the rest of us. Another suggestion that I think is the most alarming is for the DOD to “develop a national database for recording serial numbers of firearms purchased on DOD property.” 

A firearm registry that some of these toxic leaders can access and carte blanche make decisions on members’ access to their legally purchased firearms doesn’t seem like a sound idea to me; if anything, I think it opens up the possibility for more problems versus solutions. Our country has a mental health problem, and gun control won’t solve it.

Mr. Bryan states, “About half of all military suicides are among 17 to 25-year-olds.” In the United States, the third cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 is suicide.

Essentially, we are recruiting and enlisting Americans who are already hurting and expecting them to be able to work in an environment that is meant to push you to your limits with a spattering of other challenges, such as the inability to afford groceries, leaders who have no business holding the rank they do, and living conditions that are subpar at best. Then, if you survive your time in uniform, you become a veteran.

Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than nonveterans. We need to take better care of our service members, which means having uncomfortable conversations about how we, as Americans, treat those in uniform and veterans.

America is hurting, and because of that, our best of the best are also hurting. Gun control isn’t the answer; a national soul-searching would be better. 

To those I’ve lost to suicide, I think of you every day, the world was better with you, and we should’ve done more for you. 

If you have suicidal ideations please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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