As new standards for access dominated recent media coverage of veterans’ health care headlines, the launch of a historically unprecedented collaboration to prevent veterans’ suicide went completely unnoticed.
On January 31, t he Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced a partnership with the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a firearms industry association that works to promote, protect and preserve hunting and shooting sports, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the nation’s largest suicide prevention organization. Together, they are developing a program that empowers communities to engage in safe firearm-storage practices. The program includes information on creating community coalitions that promote and sustain firearm safety, with an emphasis on reaching service members, veterans and their families.
This partnership represents the nation’s biggest advance in forging common ground on an issue where polarization has interfered with lifesaving initiatives. It’s a game changer.
In 2016, about 69% of veteran suicides in the US (71% among male and 41% among female veterans) resulted from a firearm injury. In comparison, the proportion of suicides resulting from a firearm injury among nonveteran adults was 48%. 1 The majority of veteran suicides occur with those who do not seek care within the VA healthcare system, which has led the VA to broaden its focus to reach all veterans.
Given the frequency of firearm use as a method of suicide, VA recognizes that suicide prevention efforts must address how veterans store their firearms. The decision to take an action to kill oneself is at times made impulsively—in just a matter of minutes. Securely storing firearms creates precious time and physical space between an individual’s period of risk and the means to act. Studies have demonstrated that delaying access to deadly means can save a life.
VA is striving to be a national leader in suicide prevention, and lethal means safety is an important component of the department’s approach. VA’s lethal means safety initiatives encourage veterans to voluntarily store their firearms safely. Key to this approach is to train mental health and peer providers in veteran-centric counseling methods while promoting resources, including a national consultation call line for both VA and community providers seeking guidance for treatment practices or engaging a veteran in care.
Because many veterans believe that firearms must remain in their homes under all circumstances, in 2018 the VA held the first of its kind open-innovation challenge for safe firearm storage. This challenge led to the creation of numerous lifesaving product designs, which are now under development in the private sector.
The latest partnership further advances VA’s effort to ensure that lethal means safety counseling is culturally relevant, comes from a trusted source and contains no anti-firearm bias. VA respects the important role firearms play in many veterans’ lives and is committed to educating veterans and their families about safe storage of firearms in a way that is consistent with each veteran’s values and priorities.
Nothing will be more effective in diminishing suicide than correcting the false belief among many veterans that the VA wants to take away veterans’ guns. When that misperception is corrected, not only would more at-risk veterans seek out VA mental health care, but it also could become commonplace for veterans, families and friends to speak up because, “Buddies talk to buddies in crisis about safely storing guns.” This is especially important for veterans in rural areas, where the rates of firearm ownership and suicide are the highest . Joining forces with NSSF could spearhead such a shift.
The VA, NSSF and AFSP should be lauded for bridging the divide and driving this far-reaching breakthrough in firearm safety conversations and community alliances. The effort will not only save countless veterans’ lives, but also forge a path to mitigate our national tragedy of suicide.