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Gun Control Could Save Veterans' Lives

In 2006, the Israeli Defense Forces made a relatively simple policy change that required soldiers to leave their weapons at their bases when they headed home for the weekend.  The result: a staggering 40 percent drop in the suicide rate among soldiers aged 18-21, according to a November 2010 study.

The study has received some renewed interest in America in the wake of Sandy Hook. While gun-control advocates and critics may debate whether new restrictions would prevent someone like Adam Lanza from shooting up an elementary school, they would almost certainly save the lives of American veterans struggling with their wartime experiences. Members of the U.S. military, unlike their Israeli counterparts, aren't allowed to bring their weapons home, but they don't really need to: America’s gun industry is making a concerted effort to put high-powered weapons right back in their hands.

The gun industry as a whole is shrinking, with the number of households that own guns dropping by more than 40 percent from 1977 to 2010, according to a study by the Violence Policy Center. (Most gun owners do, however, own multiple guns.) In an effort to boost sales, the gun industry has started marketing its firearms directly to veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Freedom Group—the country’s largest manufacturer of firearms, owning companies like Remington and Bushmaster—wrote in its 2011 annual report that it expects to see an increase in sales as returning members of the military purchase “firearms for recreational use and to maintain training.”

When looking at the bottom line, marketing to the military makes sense. One of the shining spots in the otherwise languishing industry is assault weapons—generally considered to be semi-automatic weapons originally designed for use on battlefields. Currently, almost all of the top 15 gun manufacturers market some sort of assault weapon. And a 2010 consumer report of modern sporting rifles, also known as assault weapons, found that almost half of all modern sporting rifle owners are current or former members of the military or law enforcement.

According to Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, the NRA has been one of the players at the forefront of this push. Sponsored by leading gun manufacturers, the NRA has a program called Life of Duty specifically intended to recruit veterans and law enforcement officials into the NRA. Through these sponsorships, members of the military and law enforcement can sign up for a free membership to the NRA and receive discounted prices on guns and other armor. “It’s not just that the NRA has targeted veterans or law enforcement in the U.S., but they are doing it with the [gun manufacturers],” said Sugarmann. “And that’s the key thing, because they are doing it to target a new market primarily for assault weapons.” The NRA did not return calls for comment.

In addition to marketing these weapons directly to military personnel, the gun companies have started using military imagery in advertisements for weapons that were, after all, designed for the battlefield. Shooting Industry Magazine wrote in July, the same month of the Aurora shooting, “Another major influencing factor of gun ownership is America’s modern military veteran. There are hundreds of thousands of dads, brothers, uncles, wives, sisters, aunts, cousins and extended family and friends, who served or are serving in Iran and Afghanistan. They are respected and admired. They carried firearms to protect our country. That factor, that imagery, has had a huge positive impact on how firearms are viewed in our country.”

But as the Israeli study showed, there are real dangers with putting these powerful weapons in the hands of newly returned soldiers. American veterans are much more likely than the average citizen to commit suicide: While only 1 percent of Americans have served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States. In December 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 18 veterans die by suicide each day. And this year, the military has reported its worst year of suicides among active-duty forces since it began tracking these deaths in 2001. As of Nov. 11, there were 323 confirmed or suspected suicides in the military in 2012, a figure that surpassed the previous high of 310 suicides for the entire year in 2009. Last year, suicide was the number one cause of death among soldiers, outpacing the number of deaths on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, a study out of Harvard found a clear connection between suicides and gun ownership. According to the study, suicide rates among children, women and men of all ages are higher in states where more households have guns. In 2004, more than half of the 32,439 Americans who committed suicide used a firearm.

“The suicide rate is the highest it’s ever been, and the [NRA] is putting forth this program that enhances the access to these weapons among a population that may very well be vulnerable,” said Dr. Larry James, Dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University and a retired Army colonel. “I question that logic.”

The military is aware of these grim statistics, and while it has added significant new suicide prevention programs, it hasn’t yet done anything major to tackle the problem of gun ownership--and many question whether it ever should. But in December, two retired military generals wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for Congress to repeal a provision of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that prohibits officers from talking to their troop members about gun ownership. A spokesperson for the military told me that the members of the military go through no other protocol to obtain personal weapons than any other citizen. But given the problem with suicides, how and if the military should know which military members own weapons has been subject of discussion. “There is a list of concerns that everyone is taking a look at,” said Army spokesperson Dave Foster. “I do think they continue to think about it.”

As Washington prepares to debate renewing the assault weapons ban, it ought to consider how it would help returning soldiers. While eliminating militarized weapons is not a substitute for the mental-health care that veterans often need, it could at least save some lives.