SALT LAKE CITY — The majority of military suicides involve a personally owned firearm and nearly 70% occur at home — figures that suicide experts and doctors find concerning.
A recent University of Utah study, published in medical journal JAMA Network Open, examined how safe firearm storage practices could prevent suicides in military personnel.
“We know that firearms are the most common method of suicide within the U.S. as a whole,” Craig Bryan, lead researcher of the study, said. “Now, when we look at the military population ... we see that firearms play a much bigger role.”
Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the U., said safe firearm storage, such as keeping a gun unloaded and locked up, can reduce suicide risk by 50% or more.
Researchers examined firearm storage practices of 1,652 active-duty military personnel between 2015 and 2018 from military primary care clinics scattered across the U.S. from Utah to Virginia.
Of all the participants, 35.7% reported a firearm in or around their home. But less than a third who had a firearm claimed their weapons were safely stored, and a combined 46.3% indicated their firearms were either loaded and unlocked, or not safely stored.
According to the study, the risk of suicide is six times higher in households with a firearm, but the risk could be lowered if guns are kept unloaded and locked up.
Bryan added that limited or reduced access to highly lethal methods for suicide results in a significant reduction in suicide rate.
“The same has been found with firearms,” he said. “If there are barriers between somebody and a loaded weapon, or that weapon is locked up ... it’s been shown to be associated with significant reductions and suicide deaths.”
Bryan said mental illness is not always the main cause of suicide, and a person having access to a loaded weapon during a momentary period of distress could turn deadly.
“Storage practices slow that process down, it makes it a little more difficult, it requires you to take a few extra seconds, maybe an extra minute or so ... to get through that crisis without easy access to a dangerous weapon,” he said.
Bryan noted the majority of military suicides occur to those who have never been deployed. He said a soldier’s struggles don’t always involve post-traumatic stress disorder, but often result from other problems in life that civilians might face like relationship or financial troubles.
“When you combine lots of stress with easy access to firearms, that can in some cases become a very deadly and dangerous combination,” he said.
According to Michael Tragakis, suicide prevention clinical director of the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care Center, 71% of local veterans who died by suicide in the last year had PTSD, but their PTSD wasn’t always linked by their military experience.
“It’s a real concern for the country,” Tragakis said. “But even more so Utah veterans. We live in a sad but challenging place called the suicide belt here in the Rocky Mountain area, where rates of suicide deaths are much higher than in other areas of the country.”
Due to the unpredictability of life, Bryan compared gun locks to seat belts as a preventative measure that could “help us potentially survive” an unexpected crisis.
According to the study, those who had recent thoughts of death or self-harm or had attempted suicide were less likely to have a firearm at home, which Bryan called the “good news” of the study.
In those cases, he believes friends or family have intervened to take their firearms away, and compared it to a friend taking someone’s car keys after they’ve had too much to drink.
For veterans who have social support from family or friends, Tragakis said that person “who takes the key” can make “a world of difference.”
“We, unfortunately, see a lot of folks who are quite isolated. Folks who might be estranged from family, don’t have friends and live in those rural areas,” Tragakis said.
For Bryan, the “bad news” of the study was that safe firearm storage practices were less common among military personnel who are suicidal.
“We need to help them and offer to intervene,” he said. “That might be removing the firearms from their home while they go through that rough patch, or making sure that people have safes, gun locks, trigger locks — all those sorts of things.”
Bryan called gun owners the “single most important constituency and stakeholder” in suicide prevention.
“Those of us who own firearms, really have this enormous power and influence over suicide prevention,” he said. “But I think we’ve just traditionally failed to make the connection about how guns are so important for preventing suicide. We have to be talking about guns in order to be successful.”
Last year, a suicide and firearm injury study by the Utah Department of Human Services and Harvard University’s public health school found that from 2006-15, about 85% of firearm deaths in Utah were suicides.
“In this fiscal year, we’ve had 14 suicides; 12 of those suicides were (caused by) gunshot wound,” Tragakis said. “Many of those were guns that people owned that were not safely stored.”
Tragakis said the Salt Lake VA is taking part in a pilot program, Safe Firearm Storage for Suicide Prevention, to encourage people to lock up the guns.
Ed Clark, U. associate vice president for Clinical Affairs, said safe storage of firearms is “absolutely” a proven method of reducing unintended consequences of firearm ownership.
“While I think there’s a lot of focus on suicide itself, the underlying issues are the adverse experiences that our men and women who have served have endured,” he said.
He added it was important to recognize that veterans’ health needs are different than the rest of the population.
“This is an epidemic,” Clark said. “And it requires the same approach that we would take if we were in an epidemic by an infectious disease.”
If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, veterans or their loved ones can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 800-273-8255. To learn more about the Safe Firearm Storage for Suicide Prevention contact Michael Tragakis at firstname.lastname@example.org.