U.S. Military Moves to Cut Suicides but Defers Action on Guns

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered several improvements in access to mental health care on Thursday to reduce military suicides. However, he held off on signing off on more controversial recommendations to restrict ammunition and gun purchases by young troops, passing them on to another panel for further study. 

In late February, an independent committee recommended that the Defense Department put a series of gun safety measures in place, including waiting periods for the purchase of ammunition and firearms by service members on the military property as well as raising the minimum age for service members to purchase ammunition and guns to 25. 

In a memo released on Thursday, Austin called for establishing a suicide prevention working group to “assess the advisability and feasibility” of the initial study group’s recommendations. The recommendations would include gun measures. 

The Defense Secretary asked for cost estimates and the details of any “barriers” to implementing other changes. Austin set a deadline of June 2 for the report and didn’t specifically mention gun safety or refer to the gun proposals. 

Austin’s increased efforts show increasing concerns about mental health in the military

Austin’s orders show increasing concerns about suicides in the military, even after over a decade of programs and efforts to combat them. 

To provide help more quickly to troops who may be struggling, Austin directed the Pentagon to implement a scheduling system for appointments where patients receive several healthcare visits per week when they first seek care, as well as the hiring of more behavioral health specialists. 

Austin also ordered military primary health clinics to make unhealthy alcohol use treatment easier to receive, make sure that mental health care is available through service members’ primary care, and screen for harmful levels of alcohol use as well. 

“The mental health support available for our teammates must be comprehensive and easy to access,” said Austin in the memo. 

In a briefing Thursday, Pentagon press secretary, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, told reporters that Austin’s orders involved areas where the department has already been given authority to take immediate actions.

“While we recognize that suicide has no single cause and that no single preventative action, treatment, or cure will eliminate suicide altogether, we will exhaust every effort to promote the wellness, health, and morale of our total force,” said Ryder. 

The initial study recommended that the department require all military housing residents to register all privately owned firearms. Additionally, the panel said the department should restrict the storage and possession of privately owned guns in military dorms and barracks. 

The panel confirmed findings in annual suicide reports that noted around 66% of all active-duty military suicides — including more than 70% of those National Guard and Reserve members — are committed with firearms. It maintained that reducing access to guns could prevent some deaths. 

Member of the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee and clinical psychologist Craig Bryan said the department should work to slow down troops’ access to guns, especially those purchased in stores on bases, so individuals under stress can survive periods of high risk.