A new tool to reduce veteran suicide

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On this Veterans Day, we have to remember our sacred duty toward those who sacrifice for our country. Abraham Lincoln described the imperative “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” This duty extends far beyond the physical effects of battle to the psychological scars that can often lead to suicide. Access to firearms is a deadly part of this issue that our leaders cannot afford to ignore.

An estimated 20 veterans die daily from suicide. About 70 percent of the suicides by veterans involve firearms versus 50 percent of the suicides by those who are not veterans. This problem is likely worsened with isolation, economic dislocation, and rising gun sales associated with the pandemic. Congress enacted recent legislation aimed to reduce veteran suicide, but it removed a critical provision over gun safety at the last minute.

Limited access to firearms amid a suicide crisis is proven to save lives. A mandate for an individual who buys a firearm to wait for a period of time before receiving the gun has been shown to reduce firearm suicide with no significant substitution of other methods. Most people who consider firearm suicide without access to a gun do not switch to any alternative method. Those who do seek methods that are less deadly than firearms, as the vast majority of individuals who survive a suicide attempt will not try again. Owning a gun is tied to a much higher risk of suicide.

Two states have acted on these statistics with a new law. In Washington and soon in Virginia, anyone can confidentially add their own name to a “do not sell” list that blocks future gun purchases. One can later change his or her mind and be removed from the list, but that would take effect after a delay period. It enforces a waiting period for gun purchases. For Virginia, both purchases and possession of firearms are barred.

Research shows that those at risk of suicide would take advantage of this. But how about veterans who own firearms at higher rates? Could veterans support this law? Would they sign up for it if states use it? We conducted a recent survey of 1,000 veterans to find out. A majority of them support the list. In the raw results, the ban on both purchases and possession was less popular among veterans than a ban on only purchases. But this difference was not significant after control of other variables, and a slight majority of veterans with the survey still back the more restrictive measure.

A significant fraction of veterans would sign up for the program. Overall, 22 percent of veterans said they would sign up for the sole restriction on purchases. The double restriction for both purchases and possession was less attractive, as 14 percent said they would sign up for it. Veterans were much less likely to give up their right to own a firearm than to give up the right to buy one. But the bottom line is that many in this higher risk group are willing to allow distance between themselves and firearms.

While Congress missed a chance to address gun suicide among veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been more proactive. It launched a recent initiative to reduce suicide by encouraging veterans to safely store firearms. The “do not sell” list can save even more lives and should now be among the programs enacted by states around the country. This measure will not end veteran suicide, however, it would likely reduce it.

Ian Ayres is a professor and deputy dean of Yale Law School. Fredrick Vars is a professor at University of Alabama Law School. They are the authors of “Weapon of Choice: Fighting Gun Violence While Respecting Gun Rights.”

Tags Americans Congress Firearms Government Health Military Suicide Veterans

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