Federal suicide prevention efforts in coming months will include increased focus on veterans’ access to firearms, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said during a Capitol Hill appearance Wednesday.
“It is key,” he said during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on his department’s recent efforts to address the problem. “Seventy percent of veterans who (die by suicide) do so with firearms. We’re dealing with a population that has a special familiarity with firearms. So we’re working on ways to build time and space … between thoughts and impulsive acts.”
The comments came just two days after the first formal meeting of a new presidential task force on preventing veterans suicide, part of a year-long effort to re-energize government’s approach to the problem.
Three veterans died by suicide at VA medical sites in six days, but the department has seen an overall decrease in campus suicides in recent years.
The group, which includes eight cabinet officials and the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, named as its executive director Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of the mental health advocacy organization Give an Hour. Wilkie said the work ahead will help establish a strategic plan to coordinate federal, state and community efforts on prevention.
And he also said that work will include discussions of firearms. The topic has long been a problematic political debate on Capitol Hill, with critics calling any discussion of limiting unstable veterans’ access to weapons a violation of their constitutional rights.
But Wilkie said his department has already partnered with several firms to provide gun locks to veterans, and is looking at additional education for veterans on firearms storage and safety issues.
That will include gun safety instruction for veterans caregivers, and more information for veterans families about resources on firearms storage and services.
Of the $9.5 billion set aside for veterans mental health services in the department’s fiscal 2020 budget request, “some will be dedicated to outreach and education on firearms,” Wilkie said.
After the hearing, Wilkie emphasized that none of the work would be contrary to state or federal laws regarding firearms possession and use. “But we are looking at all areas,” he said.
Several Democratic senators pushed for additional commitments on the issue. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he wants a specific VA task force dedicated to gun violence and the department’s potential role in countering the public health problem.
Wilkie said only that he was committed to making the issue a part of the existing presidential task force on suicide prevention. He also said reducing the number of suicides will require a whole-of-society effort, not just government mandates.
The president will sign a new executive order on Tuesday creating a task force with a deadline of one year for aggressive new solutions to the problem.
Veterans advocates echoed that message, and said they can also play a role in the guns discussion.
Retired Col. Miguel Howe, a research fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, said peer groups can help “raise awareness of the dangers of firearm access for those veterans at elevated risk and in acute crisis, and promote safe storage and removal when necessary."
Dr. Arthur Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association, hailed the move by VA. “Psychological research shows that putting time and distance between a veteran in crisis and a firearm is lifesaving," he said.
According to VA estimates, about 20 veterans a day die by suicide. Of that group, about 14 have little or no contact with department health and support services.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.