Military Service Members, Firearm Storage and Suicide Risk

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Military Service Members, Firearm Storage and Suicide Risk  

Jim Windell


           Suicide rates among active-duty military members are currently at an all-time high and they have been increasing steadily over the past five years. According to some military sources, some branches of the Armed Forces are experiencing the highest rates of suicides since before World War II.

           A Brown University study in 2021 found that 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 have died by suicide - compared to the 7,057 service members killed in combat in those same 20 years. What that means is that military suicide rates are four times higher than deaths that occurred during military operations.

           Which military service members are at greatest risk for suicide?

           In a new study which was recently published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, takes a look at which service members are most likely to be at risk for suicide. The study, conducted at Rutgers University, surveyed firearm-owning service members, including active-duty service members throughout all military branches as well as those serving in the National Guard and Reserves. A total of 719 firearm-owning service members took part in the study, but the authors focused one set of analyses on 180 service members who had experienced suicidal thoughts within the past year and the other set of analyses on 85 who had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past month.

           Each service member also was asked whether they had ever told anyone about their suicidal thoughts if they had attended any behavioral health sessions within the past three months and the specific ways they store their personal firearms.

           In general, the researchers found that service members who have hidden their suicidal thoughts and avoided behavioral health care typically engaged in the highest risk firearm storage practices. Specifically, those with undisclosed past year suicidal thoughts stored their firearms at home more often and with a locking device in place less often relative to those who had told someone else about their suicidal thoughts. 

           Those with past year suicidal thoughts who hadn’t attended any recent behavioral health sessions stored their firearms without locking devices more often – but reported storing their firearms loaded less frequently. The findings were similar when the authors focused on service members who had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past month: Undisclosed suicidal thoughts were associated with using locking devices less frequently and avoidance of behavioral health was associated with less frequent use of locking devices but less frequently storing firearms loaded.

           Previous research has shown that among firearm-owning service members, those with recent suicidal thoughts are more likely to store their firearms unsafely (unlocked and loaded). This work extends beyond that to highlight that the service members least likely to be captured by suicide risk assessments as high risk are the ones most likely to have ready access to the most lethal and most frequently used method for military suicide death.

           According to lead author Michael Anestis, who is executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers and an associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Heath, “These findings highlight a real problem with our suicide prevention system. We know that firearms account for the large majority of suicide deaths within the military and that unsecured firearms at home dramatically increase the risk for suicide. Here, we found that suicidal service members less likely to be seen as high risk – those that hide their thoughts from others and avoid behavioral health care – tend to be the service members with the most ready access to their firearms.”

            Anestis went on to say that this suggests we have to move beyond just trying to prevent suicide once we already know somebody is at risk. “If we keep doing that, we will keep missing a large portion of those at greatest risk. We need to find ways to encourage secure firearm storage – locked and unloaded and away from home during times of risk – throughout the entire firearm-owning community and particularly within the military.”

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Anestis, M. D., Bond, A. E., Capron, D. W., Bryan, A. O., & Bryan, C. J. (2023). Differences in firearm storage practices among United States military service members who have and have not disclosed suicidal thoughts or attended behavioral health sessions. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior.


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