In a surprising move, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has announced that the Pentagon will not impose age restrictions or waiting periods on the purchase of firearms and ammunition on military bases, nor will it prohibit personal guns from being possessed by soldiers. Those were a few of the recommendations of an advisory panel put together by Austin to look for ways to reduce the number of suicides among active duty military members, along with a requirement that base commanders be alerted of every gun purchase that takes place within the confines of the military base.
While the announcement is good news for active duty gun owners, the Pentagon is still leaving the door open to adopt gun control measures going forward.
The decision Thursday to reject the recommendations was the culmination of a new effort by the Pentagon to finally reduce the high number of suicides, following years of policies and spending that have largely failed to curb the problem. The earlier advisory panel had pinpointed easy access to firearms, which are sold at bases across the U.S., as a top risk.
Elizabeth Foster, the executive director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency, told reporters at a press conference Thursday that the department did a very thorough review of the recommendation to raise the minimum age for on-base gun purchases to 25.
Restricting the gun sales to service members 25 years old or older would filter out younger troops who are most at risk for suicide, Austin’s advisors said.
“Ultimately, we determined that there are some significant legal barriers to implementing that recommendation at this time,” Foster said.
Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said the gun-control measures are “not something we would rule out” but that the Pentagon’s efforts are focused on the 111 recommendations that made the cut.
So what steps will the Department of Defense be taking to reduce the number of suicides? The list of recommendations given the green light by Austin are based on five “lines of effort”:
- Foster a supportive environment
- Improve the delivery of mental health care
- Address stigma and other barriers to care
- Revise suicide prevention training
- Promote a culture of “lethal means safety”
It’s that last line that could raise some eyebrows among gun owners, military members, and veterans. The Pentagon report says that effort will include a “comprehensive public education campaign”, offering funding incentives for firearm storage, providing on-base secure storage options for personal firearms, enforcing existing restrictions on private firearms in barracks, and making improvements to reducing risk in barracks and dormitories.
Other than the existing prohibition on privately-owned guns in barracks, it doesn’t sound like any of those efforts are going to be actual mandates, which is good. Suicide is a genuine concern in the military, with the Pentagon reporting that suicides among active-duty service members increased 25% in the first quarter of 2023 compared to last year. In fact, according to a 2021 report, about four times as many service members have lost their lives to suicide than were killed in combat over the past 20 years. But efforts to reduce suicides must still comport with the constitution, and as Elizabeth Foster acknowledged, banning gun sales to adults younger than 25 years of age is definitely going run headlong into those “significant” legal barriers given that there’s no historical gun control law that would even come close to serving as a viable analogue.
One addition that I’d love to see the Pentagon make to its suicide prevention initiatives is further funding for the Sentinel app designed by D.C. Project member Kathleen Gilligan, which received a $1-million grant from the VA earlier this year as part of that agency’s Mission Daybreak effort to reduce veteran suicides. I spoke with Gilligan about the app back in February when the grant was first announced, and it seems to me that it could easily be adopted for use among active duty members of the military in addition to veterans.
The app itself has several components, and one of its strengths is its customization. One of the goals of the app is encouraging veterans to store their firearms safely, but its backbone is a veteran-specific community support network that allows and encourages veterans to look out for each other.
“We tie safe storage of firearms into a safety team of trusted fellow veterans, family, and friends,” Gilligan explained in an interview with Bearing Arms. “Sentinel allows real-time alerts whenever a firearm is unlocked if it’s connected to the Sentinel system. You can choose to let your buddies know you’re unlocking your firearm. That could be anything from ‘I’m unlocking it because I’m going to the range’, a break-in, or ‘I’m feeling suicidal and I want to end my life.’”
But users of the Sentinel app don’t have to use this feature if they don’t want to. Gilligan spoke to many veterans and gun owners as she and her partner were designing the app, and quickly realized that customization was key if she was going to get buy-in from the community.
As a result, the Sentinel app allows for multiple settings for veterans to pick and choose from when it comes to firearms storage. The electronic locking devices are one option, but Gilligan says that users can also simply receive an alert if any unlocked firearms are accessed when they’re not around.
“We don’t need any more laws. We know that, right? I’m a Second Amendment protector. I’m the Washington State director for the D.C. Project, which is women for gun rights. But what we all recognize is that veterans know that a firearm is going to work. If they want to end their life they know that’s going to work. So we have to say we know that vets love their firearms, we know that we should have them, we know that they can do a lot of good for us including protecting our homes. But just being willing to blow up that conversation and say “look, let’s just be real about it. Let’s talk about veteran suicide and what it means when you have a firearm in their home. And let’s let them decide, with their trusted peers, or their family, or their fellow vets, how they want to be safe. That’s really the crux of the project.”
The most important steps that DoD can take to reduce suicides are to improve access to care and to reduce the stigma around seeking help, but the Sentinel app would also provide peer-to-peer support for those who are suffering from depression, PTSD, or other mental illnesses that may lead them to suicidal ideation. If the goal is saving lives, not controlling guns, then expanding Sentinel to include active-duty service members would be a valuable tool for both mental health professionals and the servicemembers themselves, and I hope that it can be incorporated into the Pentagon’s suicide prevention efforts going forward.
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. Your life matters, and help is available.