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Gun control: Why the US military is fighting with the NRA

US military commanders are trying to cope with an epidemic of suicides within the armed forces.  Officials say they are frustrated by a recent law, backed by the NRA, that makes it difficult to talk to soldiers about personally owned firearms.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / July 27, 2012

Corporal Nicholas Brazil, Crew Chief in the U.S. Marine Corps, fires a machine gun at targets, from a Huey attack helicopter during live fire training for the multi-national military exercise RIMPAC at Pohakuloa Training Area on the island of Hawaii in this July 22 photo.

Hugh Gentry/Reuters

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Washington

US military commanders are increasingly expressing frustration with the National Rifle Association for blocking what they feel are vital measures to keep troops safe.

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The controversy revolves around the surge in suicide within the armed forces. The Pentagon is facing an “epidemic,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told lawmakers this week, with some 206 US troops suspected of taking their own lives so far this year.

“That is an epidemic,” he said. “Something is wrong.”

As they cast about looking for possible ways to bring down the rates of suicide, commanders say that the answer may lie in having candid discussions with their soldiers about their personal firearms--and to take personal weapons away from those who appear likely to hurt themselves.

“The majority of [suicides] have two things in common: Alcohol and a gun. That’s just the way it is,” General Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s former Vice Chief of Staff, told the Monitor this January, shortly before he retired. “And when you have somebody that you in fact feel is high risk, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to tell that individual that it would not be a good idea to have a weapon around the house.”

The problem, say US military commanders, is that a new NRA-backed law prohibits them from engaging in discussions about weapons and safety.
“I am not allowed to ask a soldier who lives off-post whether that soldier has a privately-owned weapon,” Chiarelli says. The legislation took effect at the end of 2010.

While commanders are permitted to ask troops who appear to be an imminent danger to themselves or others about private firearms--or to suggest locking them temporarily in a base depot--the law requires that if the soldier denies that he or she is thinking about harming anyone, then the commander cannot pursue the discussion further, he adds.

Yet determining whether a service member is an imminent danger to himself or others has been an elusive and frustrating pursuit for the Pentagon.
“I’m struck by the number of folks who come in for behavioral health counseling and are rated as ‘low to medium risk’ [of harming themselves or others] and two weeks later commit the irrevocable act of suicide,” Chiarelli says.

Half of troops that killed themselves use firearms to end their life and “suicide in most cases is a spontaneous event” that is often fueled by drugs and alcohol. But “if you can separate the individual from the weapon,” he added, “you can lower the incidences of suicide.” [Editor's note: An earlier version of this paragraph used phrasing that left an incorrect impression about the number of military personnel who kill themselves.]

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