While commanders are permitted to ask troops who appear to be an imminent danger to themselves or others about private firearms--or to suggest locking them temporarily in a base depot--the law requires that if the soldier denies that he or she is thinking about harming anyone, then the commander cannot pursue the discussion further, he adds.
Yet determining whether a service member is an imminent danger to himself or others has been an elusive and frustrating pursuit for the Pentagon.
“I’m struck by the number of folks who come in for behavioral health counseling and are rated as ‘low to medium risk’ [of harming themselves or others] and two weeks later commit the irrevocable act of suicide,” Chiarelli says.
Half of troops that killed themselves use firearms to end their life and “suicide in most cases is a spontaneous event” that is often fueled by drugs and alcohol. But “if you can separate the individual from the weapon,” he added, “you can lower the incidences of suicide.” [Editor's note: An earlier version of this paragraph used phrasing that left an incorrect impression about the number of military personnel who kill themselves.]
The problem, Chairelli says, is that “we have issues in even being able to do that.”
Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs are backing US military officials in the matter. Commanders who have asked troops they feel are at risk to consider locking their firearms on base temporarily are making use of an important “stalling technique,” Jan Kemp, national mental health director for the VA, said at a conference late last year.
She pointed to a study that found that a large number of suicides are impulsive events. If someone plans to jump off a bridge and finds that the bridge is closed, “Studies show that they won’t go to another bridge,” says Dr. Kemp. “They will think about it.”