Limiting easy access to guns, including those purchased on base, is one of the top ways the Defense Department could cut down on military deaths by suicide, according to an independent commission tasked with reviewing the Defense Department’s suicide prevention programs.
Firearms are used in 66% of suicides among active duty troops, 72% among reservists and 78% in the National Guard, according to the commission’s report, whereas guns are employed in roughly half of suicides in the U.S. overall.
The Defense Department has tried to decrease access to lethal means, but the commission found it could do more to track firearms purchases on military bases, one of more than 100 recommendations it made in a report released Friday. The report was the culmination of hundreds of focus groups from nine site visits around the world since the summer.
“Often … someone found out that a service member had purchased or acquired a firearm, often on base at a military exchange … only after they had used it to kill themselves,” said Craig Bryan, an Air Force veteran and clinical psychologist at Ohio State University, in a briefing Friday. “This was a common refrain in our site visits, that military personnel wanted to encourage a culture of secure firearm storage, and also to reduce convenient access to firearm acquisition, especially for those who are in acutely elevated distress.”
The commission recommended standardizing purchasing rules across the Defense Department, whereas current policies tend to mirror local and state laws. Recommendations included raising the purchase age to 25 on bases, in addition to imposing a seven-day waiting period to purchase a gun, another four-day waiting period to purchase ammunition and a requirement to register all privately owned firearms stored in base housing.
“A significant percentage of on-base suicides involve firearms purchased on base at military exchanges,” Bryan said, adding that the idea is to “slow down that access to firearms … so that people can in essence survive periods of high risk.”
He acknowledged the highly charged political implications of regulating firearm access, but said he’s found that military personnel tend to be more open to the idea than civilians, after losing so many colleagues to suicide.
“So many of those suicides involve firearms that we recognize that there is a connection between the two,” he said. “Over and over, we heard over this past year, ‘You know, I didn’t see it coming, my friend seemed okay, but they had a gun, and they died.’ “
Many military leaders also called for the repealing a federal law that restricts them from controlling troops’ access to guns, including collecting any information on lawful gun ownership among service members.
“We heard stories from military leaders, senior NCOs, saying, in essence, I’m not allowed to ask or sort of keep track of who are my most vulnerable and highest risk service members,” Bryan said. “When we lose service members in our units to firearm suicide, there’s often this sense that we could have done more ― we could have gotten involved, we could have helped them to secure and lock up their firearms, more safely, which could have potentially prevented those suicides.”
Reforming the system
Dozens more recommendations targeted DoD’s bureaucracy as a root cause of ineffective suicide prevention programs, including failing to prioritize promoting leaders who know how to take care of their people.
“One of the things that we heard and saw…was that people were promoted based on their ability to successfully carry out the mission,” rather than their skill at leading people, said Becky Blais, a clinical psychologist at Arizona State University. “And so people who were in charge might not necessarily know how to deal with that service member who was experiencing a myriad of age-appropriate issues” that increased their risk for suicide.
That suggestion mirrors one from the 2021 independent review commission on sexual assault, which found that the promotion system wasn’t fully accounting for whether leaders are fostering an environment that prevents sexual assaults and holds perpetrators accountable.
The commission also recommended centralizing and streamlining military suicide prevention policies and programs, which tend to vary vastly across different installations and commands.
“There needs to be some type of standardization just given that in the military there’s such frequent moves or such frequent changes in service members that that consistency and that standardization becomes really important,” said Rajeev Ramchand, a senior behavioral scientist at Rand Corp. “But we also highlight in the report areas of successes that are local …. We think that that centralization can help diffuse those successful approaches across to other installations.”
That includes training, which commission members observed to be, in a word, ineffective.
The commission also found fault with the Defense Department’s required annual suicide prevention training, which is crammed in with a series of other courses, often held in packed conference halls.
“It was a dark auditorium ― many of them were asleep. Many of them were on their phones,” Ramchand said of one such course he observed. “So, it’s hard to think that this is having an effect.” The commission recommends swapping that industrial-training approach for lessons delivered in small groups and tailored for audiences depending on their leadership roles.
The commission also noted that there’s a shortage of behavioral health professionals and support staff, made worse by the year-long-plus bureaucratic process to hire counselors.
Something as straightforward as making sure troops are paid faster could also decrease the financial stress that can lead to self-harm, the report found.
“Financial strain is one of the leading risk factors for suicide amongst military personnel,” Bryan said, citing the problems they have with “being paid correctly and in a timely manner,” and made worse by travel reimbursement processes that “often confusing, with high error rates and slow reimbursement systems.”
The Pentagon acknowledged the report in a release Friday, but did not set specifically endorse any recommendations or set a timeline for implementing them.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.