Suicides in military and religious communities call for gun policy changes



Col. (Ret’d) Mike Jason and Pastor James Brigman

Reverend James Brigman

We need to talk about guns and suicide.

September was Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and we are both part of communities that have complex relationships with guns.

Colonel Mike Jason is a retired US Army officer and Pastor James Brigman is an Evangelical Pastor based in Rockingham. Although we come from very different faiths and professions, we have both learned that immediate access to guns is the common factor in the increase in suicide in our communities. Based on our experiences, we call for changes in gun policy to keep our communities safe.

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Our country is entering a 20th year of continuous military operations in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, suicide prevention among the military and veterans has become an urgent priority. Mike saw the effects of suicides in the units he led; since his retirement, four soldiers he served with have committed suicide.

While we are pleased to see an increase in discussions and political efforts to address veteran and military suicide, these discussions generally focus only on mental illness. While mental health and access to mental health care is an essential part of suicide prevention, we know that temporarily withdrawing access to firearms in times of crisis is the quickest response and most effective: an individual’s access to a loaded firearm triples their risk of death by suicide.

As a senior Pentagon officer, Mike reviewed every firearm incident report in the military over a three-year period. The suicide incidents he examined weren’t necessarily correlated with combat experiences, post-traumatic stress, or moral injury. Many of the soldiers who committed suicide had not yet been deployed, let alone in combat.

It is a common misconception that deployment increases the risk of suicide among military personnel, when in fact a recent study found that of all active duty members who died by suicide, 42% had not been deployed. A typical incident may involve a soldier experiencing a relationship break-up, heavy drinking, and a self-inflicted shot from a personal firearm.

Firearms in service, including suicides, shots are rare. Military procedures, supervision and secure storage keep them from happening. However, shootings outside of working hours – unintentional shootings, domestic violence and suicides – are not. Too often, soldiers ignore their training when using their personal firearms, resulting in many more incidents in the home.

When units are deployed, commanders have the power to withdraw firearms from soldiers who may be in crisis due to battlefield experiences or incidents on the home front. Doing so is not punitive, but rather a chance for that soldier to speak with a chaplain, psychologist or peer who can provide support.

But military leaders have less authority over personal firearms after deployment, and in states without firearm meaning legislation, soldiers in crisis retain access to their firearms, even when there are signs that they may be a danger to themselves or to others. And, of course, once the military leaves the military and becomes veterans, there is no oversight.

Suicide is also a silent but pervasive problem in faith communities. Religious groups, especially conservatives, don’t often talk about mental health or suicide. In recent years, suicides among high-level pastors and their families have started to change the conversation, as we cannot escape the devastating emotional, mental and spiritual wounds that suicide inflicts on those left behind. This conversation led more people of faith to discuss their mental health in religious contexts, but it hasn’t changed the way conservative religious groups view gun access and gun safety.

People who live with a gun at home are three times more likely to kill themselves than those who don’t. The Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund has compiled data on gun suicides, and their findings match what Mike observed in the military.

Considering the lethality of firearms, about 90% of firearm suicide attempts result in death, while 4% of those that do not involve a firearm are fatal. This presents a serious challenge to members of our faith community who are facing a personal crisis. And it is well known that veterans are 1.5 times more likely to kill themselves than non-veterans and are more likely to use a gun.

Life is a precious gift, even among the shatters that confront us and challenge us. We need to take care of those of us who are facing crises. We are to, as the Bible says, “bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law” (Galatians 6: 2). We must remember that suicide deaths come at a time of crisis and guns make suicide attempts deadly.

Our goal in helping a person at risk of suicide must be to help them survive the time of the crisis, to limit their access to lethal means at that time and to obtain support, care and assistance. that she needs. Immediate access to a loaded gun does the opposite – it takes a moment of pain and despair and turns it into an irreversible result. In 19 states and DC, extreme risk protection orders, or red flag laws, allow family members or law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily remove access to firearms , which can provide a critical time to intervene.

Gun owners like Mike can do their part by responsibly storing their guns, locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition, to keep them out of the reach of children and teens. But other policies are needed to keep those who are confronted with momentary suicidal impulses alive.

Most people, in both political parties, support gun legislation, and we must take action to reduce the ever-increasing number of gun suicides among veterans and military personnel, in the evangelical community and in our country as a whole.

Col. (Ret’d) Mike Jason is a retired Army officer who has studied military suicide extensively with over 24 years of service, including time in the Pentagon and commanding combat troops. He is a member of the Everytown Veteran Advisory Council.

Reverend James Brigman is the pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Rockingham. He is an advocate for medically fragile people and is a leading community leader.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or in emotional distress 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line, which provides 24/7 trained crisis counseling services via SMS. Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States.


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