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The White House's New Suicide Prevention Plan For Veterans Addresses Access To Guns


The Trump administration has announced a new road map to prevent suicide among military troops and veterans. It focuses on enlisting community partners and launching a public awareness campaign. Critics in Congress say the plan is not proactive enough. It does address one issue that has been seen as politically taboo - access to guns. Guns are by far the deadliest method of suicide. But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, the Department of Veterans Affairs is cautious in broaching the topic.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: By definition, veterans know how to use guns. Making sure a vet in crisis doesn't have access to a gun could be the most effective way to reduce suicide. But talking about restricting guns from veterans...

TERRI TANIELIAN: People really haven't wanted to touch the issue of firearm safety.

LAWRENCE: Terri Tanielian studies suicide prevention at the RAND Corporation. She says the new White House road map was a bit disappointing. It took 15 months to endorse a set of recommendations that aren't very new. But she is happy that the White House plan mentions safe storage of guns.

TANIELIAN: Now that we're wading into that water, it is good to see that we are willing to talk about it and willing to engage partners and do something meaningfully on this issue.

LAWRENCE: The fact that the White House mentioned guns at all was encouraging to some experts. There were rumors that the powerful gun rights lobby would get that section removed from the plan. Separately, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been handing out trigger locks for years, sometimes in big bowls in the waiting room, like lollipops at the doctor's office. Still, the VA treads carefully. Dr. Matt Miller, director of VA suicide prevention, doesn't use the words gun control.

MATT MILLER: We're talking about lethal means safety in the context of suicide prevention.

LAWRENCE: Miller wants to dispel the stigma. Anyone can be in emotional pain, he says. Anyone can have suicidal thoughts. And he wants veterans to think about keeping guns safely out of reach when they're in crisis.

MILLER: The path from suicidal ideation to action the majority of times occurs within 60 minutes or less. So if that firearm, if it's near you, that that path can be engaged very quickly.

LAWRENCE: Miller says suicide is usually an impulsive act, but guns make it much more likely to be lethal. Safe storage of guns can mean giving a spouse the keys to a gun safe or getting guns out of the house during a time of crisis. And Miller has been encouraged that even some members of that powerful gun rights lobby are willing to get on board. Joe Bartozzi leads the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

JOE BARTOZZI: The community of gun owners, if a doctor talks to them about gun ownership, that might make them suspicious. But if a gun advocacy organization, you know, a group that advocates on behalf of the firearms industry, starts talking about safe storage to prevent suicide, they might sit up and listen.

LAWRENCE: If they're looking to prevent suicide, VA doctors will have to keep engaging with that community. Studies show gun owners are four times more likely to die by suicide. Veterans are twice as likely to own guns.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: And to remind listeners, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and press one if you are a veteran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.