Thursday, November 4, 2021

Biden Unveils Gun Safety Program to Reduce Suicides Nationwide Including Among Military Members

A new suicide prevention initiative announced earlier this week by the Biden administration will promote safer firearms storage; best practices for firearms dealers; and for veterans and military members, a focus on lethal means safety (or reducing access to lethal means of self-harm).

More than 45,000 people were killed by firearms in the United States in 2020, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; about half of annual suicides result from firearms. Suicidal crises are often brief and sudden, so strategies that create time and space between a person in crisis and their access to a firearm can be lifesaving, according to a release from the White House. The number of suicides among current military rose by 15% in 2020 from 2019, according to data from the Pentagon.

In what the administration is calling “an unprecedented federal focus on improving lethal means safety as a tool to save lives” of military members and veterans, federal agencies will come together to create a plan addressing lethal means safety awareness, education, training, and program evaluation. The agencies will also launch a public education campaign to encourage safer storage of firearms as well as lethal means safety training for crisis responders, health care professionals, family members, and other gatekeepers. The agencies involved include the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, and Veterans Affairs and the Department of Transportation’s Office of Emergency Medical Services.

The administration will also make it easier for customers to obtain secure gun storage and safety devices by finalizing a rule proposed in 2016 requiring that firearms dealers offer these items for sale.

Finally, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) will promote “best practices” for federal firearms dealers by issuing a guide reminding them of their responsibilities regarding background checks, safety and security, and distributing educational materials to customers.

The effort could go a long way toward solving a very complicated public health problem that claims the lives of 18 veterans every day in our country, Jeffrey Swanson, Ph.D., M.A., told Psychiatric News. He is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine who studies firearm-related violence and suicide. “Suicide has many causes—from social and economic strains to psychological distress and substance use to lethal means access—which is why we need a comprehensive approach that addresses all of those contributing factors. I think the White House strategy tries to do that. I applaud the focus on firearm safety, since guns play such a prominent role in veteran suicide.”

At the same time, Swanson expressed concern about the initiative’s lack of reach to veterans who are not enrolled in or receiving care from the VA’s health care system. These veterans have a very high rate of suicide and make up more than half of the veteran population, he said.

For related information, see the Psychiatric Services article “Preventing Suicide Through Better Firearm Safety Policy in the United States.”

(Image: iStock/tussik13)

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