Every year, approximately 4,200 veterans die by gun suicide –– that’s about 11 veterans today and every day.
As Denis McDonough takes over as President Biden’s secretary of Veterans Affairs, he will have his work cut out for him preventing this deadly crisis. Luckily, he can begin by doing one thing that Secretary Robert Wilkie –– President Trump’s appointee –– essentially refused to do during his tenure: discuss the role that guns play in veteran suicides.
Wilkie purported to hold veteran suicide as a top priority, saying, “If we do not focus on [suicide prevention]…we will be doing a disservice to those veterans we care for.” But he and his VA focused solely on the (undeniably critical) mental health component of suicide, while largely refusing to discuss the weapons that make suicide attempts so deadly. In fact, he repeatedly refused to address any solution that involved guns, despite the fact that guns are the most fatal method of suicide and seven of 10 veteran suicides are by gun.
This past summer, for example, a presidentially commissioned group overseen by Secretary Wilkie released its findings on how to prevent veteran suicide after spending months exploring the issue. The long-awaited 65-page report failed to mention the word “firearm” until page 41, and then only discussed guns across three pages in just one section. In fact, the report never even mentioned that the majority of veteran suicides are by gun.
Around the same time, the VA removed data sets on veteran suicide that were previously publicly available on its suicide prevention website. This information had accompanied VA’s annual report on veteran suicide and included breakdowns by year, state, region, gender, age group, and suicide method. This data was essential to organizations who track veteran suicides by lethal means, and it simply disappeared.
To make matters worse, throughout October, statisticians and researchers across the veteran community wondered if the VA was going to release updated suicide numbers in 2020. Amidst a pandemic and a presidential election, the annual VA suicide report — typically released on Oct. 1st — was conspicuously delayed, drawing concern from lawmakers and advocates alike. The report was finally made public just after Veterans Day, but it only mentioned the word “firearm” six times — five of which were to state the fact that firearms were used in 68 percent of veteran suicides. The report failed to list any actions that could prevent firearm suicide.
This silence proved out to be deadly: Secretary Wilkie oversaw the agency charged with caring for those “who shall have borne the battle” for nearly 30 months, and in that time, an estimated 10,000 veterans died by gun suicide.
Secretary Wilke’s silence on this issue was also a missed opportunity to educate veterans and save countless lives. It’s a little-known fact that most people who attempt suicide do not die — unless they use a gun. Across all suicide attempts not involving a firearm, just 4 percent result in death. But for gun suicides it is the opposite; approximately 90 percent of gun suicide attempts are fatal. So, while veterans in crisis may consider different means of suicide, access to a firearm can mean the difference between life and death.
Thankfully, in addition to talking about the role of guns in veteran suicide, there are plenty of actions the new VA secretary can take to immediately to address this crisis while respecting Second Amendment rights. For example, health-care providers in VA facilities should be routinely asking patients about access to lethal means and providing counseling about the risk of firearm suicide. The VA should also publish gun storage maps to encourage voluntary out-of-home storage during times of crisis.
Perhaps the most important solution is also the most simple: temporarily separate veterans in crisis from firearms. As a veteran, I have faced this very dilemma. A friend believed that her veteran husband was contemplating suicide. My first question was, “Is there a gun in the house, and if so, how can we prevent him from accessing it, temporarily?”
Just as a veteran would take car keys from a potential drunk driver, we must also feel empowered to ask about guns in the home or even take the keys to a friend’s gun safe –– temporarily limiting access without confiscating the guns.
Removing the most lethal option from the equation creates the time and space for a veteran in crisis to seek the necessary mental health care, substance abuse treatment, or peer-to-peer counseling that is proven to help prevent suicides. The VA has a responsibility to promote these firearm-focused solutions that will truly reduce veteran suicide.
But before we can truly begin to address this crisis, the veteran community must have the honest conversation about guns that it has long avoided. Eleven of us are dying by gun suicide every day.
Under Secretary McDonough’s leadership, the VA must address the problem of guns head on. If they do, then the next four years will be far less deadly than the last.
Chris Marvin is a former Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot and combat-wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He is a member of the Everytown Veteran Advisory Council.
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