Pentagon vs. NRA: Will gun-rights law raise risk of soldier suicides?

A new NRA-backed law will make it virtually impossible to get private weapons out of the hands of some potentially suicidal soldiers, Army officials say. The NRA says the guns aren't the problem. 

Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, seen here in Iraq in 2006, has said he is concerned about whether a new NRA-backed law could lead to a greater risk of soldier suicides.

Top military officials are speaking out against a new law backed by the National Rifle Association, which they fear will increase the danger of suicide among US troops.

The measure prohibits commanders from being able to “collect or record any information” about private firearms owned by US troops living off base. 

The Army’s No. 2 officer, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, expressed concern this week that this law amounts to a prohibition on commanders engaging in vital discussions with US soldiers about weapons and personal safety.

“I am not allowed to ask a soldier who lives off post whether that soldier has a privately owned weapon,” he says.

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

Nearly half of all soldiers who commit suicide use a firearm, General Chiarelli points out. He added that “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.”

The problem, Chiarelli said, is that “we have issues in even being able to do that.” 

The NRA pushed for the law after receiving complaints from soldiers at bases across the country, says spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. In Fort Riley, Kan., commanders “imposed a preposterous regulation,” according to the NRA website, that required soldiers to register firearms that they were keeping off base and authorized commanders “to set arbitrary limits on the caliber of firearms and ammunition their troops may privately own.” 

The NRA defended the measure. “The thing that doesn’t make sense to us is that when anyone exhibits high-risk tendencies, the logical response would be to provide counseling, to address matters at hand that are triggering these high-risk tendencies,” Mr. Arulanandam says. “That would be common sense, rather than to talk to them about gun locks.”

In a discussion sponsored by the Center for a New American Security, Chairelli noted that half of all soldiers are actually seeing a behavioral health specialist when they commit suicide. Finding correlations and causes for suicide to lower the rate among troops “has proven to be the most difficult [challenge] in my 40 years in the military,” he added.

Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs are backing Pentagon officials in the matter. Commanders who have asked troops they feel are at risk to consider locking their firearms on base, temporarily, is an important “stalling technique,” says Jan Kemp, national mental health director for the VA, who pointed to a study that found that a large number of suicides are impulsive events. If someone plans to jump off a bridge and finds that bridge is closed, “Studies show they won’t go to another bridge,” says Dr. Kemp. “They will think about it.” 

In a recently released policy brief, “Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide,” analysts at CNAS point to the high suicide rate among former troops. “Although only 1 percent of Americans have served in the military, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States.” 

The report also recommends a repeal of the NRA-backed law.

The office of Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who introduced the measure as a part of the 2011 Defense Authorization Act, defended it.

“Over-regulating firearms beyond what is required by state and federal law does not reduce the risk of suicide,” Jared Young, Inhofe’s communications director, said in an e-mail. “To suggest otherwise begs the question of where to draw the line regarding additional regulations of prescription and over-the-counter medicine, rope, and other potentially harmful items.”

Yet the prohibition on even discussing privately owned firearms with troops who live off post sets up potential freedom of speech questions, says Margaret Harrell, co-author of the CNAS report. “Potentially, it’s an interesting contest between gun-ownership advocates and freedom of speech,” she says, arguing that “permitting commanders to talk about personally owned weapons isn’t in conflict with gun ownership.” 

Asking questions about gun ownership is not violating First Amendment free-speech rights, but rather Second Amendment rights to own private arms, says Arulanandam, who offers an analogy.

“If anyone asks a law-abiding person, ‘What kind of books do you have at home?’ we would be outraged,” he says. “I think the focus ought to be on addressing the problem that is causing people to exhibit the behavior that concerns these military higher-ups.”

He adds: “If you have someone who’s determined to do themselves harm, unfortunately, they’re going to do it, regardless of what laws there are or what questions are asked.”

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