Give our veterans considering suicide help, not a gun
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As the Army’s vice chief of staff, I spent much of my time working on a crisis most Americans don’t even realize exists. A crisis that on average takes the lives of 20 American veterans each day: the devastating epidemic of veteran suicide.

Our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives daily to make America safer. But for many, when they return home, the battles they face are far from over. The stress of repeated deployments, failed relationships, financial challenges, depression and PTSD are among the reasons that every year roughly 7,000 veterans take their own life. Two-thirds of the time they do so by gun.

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Researchers who study suicides have found that the decision to end one’s life is often spontaneous, and that if accessible, guns are the most lethal and common way one commits suicide. For this reason, eliminating easy access to a gun during a mental health crisis can mean the difference between life and death.

 

Knowing this, I am shocked that some in Congress are currently supporting a new piece of misguided and dangerous legislation that would make it easier for veterans who are at risk of facing a mental health crisis to get their hands on a gun. Congress should be working to save lives and to guarantee that all veterans have access to world-class medical care and counseling, not making it easier for those suffering from the hidden wounds of war to end their lives.

We have to do better. And as someone who has spent years working to reform our mental health system and to reduce veteran suicides, I know we can.

Shortly after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, Congress passed, and President Bush signed, bipartisan legislation requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to send the names of veterans who have clear and convincing evidence of mental incompetency to the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System. Any person listed within this system is ineligible to legally purchase firearms from a licensed dealer.

The legislation that Congress is currently considering would reverse this law, and would immediately remove more than 174,000 mental health records from the background check system. The records that would be removed include veterans who are prohibited from obtaining guns because they are suffering from serious mental illnesses like dementia, schizophrenia, and long-term severe posttraumatic stress.

We know that reducing veteran suicide is a complicated issue that requires comprehensive solutions. That said, providing veterans who struggle with mental illness increased access to a gun is not part of that solution.

Congress should instead focus on more supportive gun-focused legislation like making it easier for family and friends to help their loved ones in crisis. Most states currently lack laws that enable family and friends to contact law enforcement and remove firearms from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others. Gaps like these in our laws help explain why since 1968, more Americans have died from guns in the United States than on battlefields of all the wars in our country’s history.

Still, there are some who will mislabel these responsible policies as efforts to strip our veterans of their rights without due process. They could not be more wrong. In fact, there is already a law on the books that ensures any veteran on the prohibited purchaser list has a right to a hearing where they can present evidence regarding his or her mental capability. That’s important. The current system works.

Last year, I joined former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, her husband, Navy combat veteran and retired NASA astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, and a long list of the nation’s most prominent retired military officials to launch the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense. It is a national initiative of distinguished veterans from all branches and ranks of the military who are committed to advancing commonsense solutions to gun violence here at home. While respecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans, our focus is to help keep guns out of the wrong hands, and saves lives.

Throughout the course of my nearly four decades of service to our nation, I saw first hand the incredible power of firearms and the dangers they pose when they end up in the hands of people who should not have them.

Every day while deployed, our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to protect our freedom, and when they return, we should protect theirs. Congress has a duty to ensure these heroes’ safety and they can do so through rational and honorable gun safety legislation.

Our veterans in crisis need our help, not a gun.

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli is retired United States Army general. As vice chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Chiarelli led the Department of Defense efforts on post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and suicide prevention.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.