Easy access to firearms plays role in veteran suicide

Matt Wetenkamp Veteran Suicide Prevention Coordinator, Gun Shop Project Coordinator with Colorado Department Of Public Health and Environment

SAN LUIS VALLEY – “Seventeen veterans die by suicide every day.”

That sobering statistic hung in the air throughout Matt Wetenkamp’s presentation “Veteran Forum on Suicide Prevention and Lethal Means Safety” recently made to the Veterans Coalition of the San Luis Valley.

Wetenkamp, who is the Veteran Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the state of Colorado, went on to provide a bevy of other numbers, as well. The topic of veteran suicide is tragic and disturbing, but it’s in the numbers that the clearest story is told.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States with one attempt at suicide every 35 seconds and one death by suicide every 12 minutes.

“Veterans are a small percentage of the total population, but they make up 18% of all suicides in the United States. We’re looking at more than 6,000 veteran suicides every year. It’s quoted a lot that twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. The number – if we’re talking about just veterans – is probably something more like seventeen. But whether it’s seventeen or twenty-two… it’s too many to lose every single day. Far too many. Suicide is a very real problem for veterans in the military community.”

Wetenkamp also addressed the more salient, and, for some, controversial, point in the presentation: the fatal link between veteran suicide and guns.

“I’m not anti-gun,” he said. “I grew up in a family that hunted, and I own a gun myself. This isn’t a discussion about gun control. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. This is about a friend or family member removing a gun to a safe location for a short period of time. This is how a community can take care of its own.”

Firearms are by far the most lethal and the most common method of suicide in the United States with more people killing themselves using a gun than all the other methods combined.  And veterans use a firearm in suicide more than anyone else, at a rate of three out of four compared to one out of two in the general population.

“Nothing groundbreaking here,” Wetenkamp said.  “Veterans have a high degree of familiarity with firearms. Half of veterans own at least one firearm. A third of veterans report keeping a firearm loaded and unlocked at all times. On top of that, we’ve seen a 91% increase in the sale of firearms since the beginning of the pandemic.”

In a manner that acknowledged he was speaking to an audience where the topic of firearms may be more “loaded”, Wetenkamp continued in a straightforward, cut to the chase manner.

“Why does any of this matter? Eighty-five to ninety percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal. All other forms of suicide – whether it’s pills, carbon monoxide, cutting, hanging or other forms of suffocation – are fatal less than 5% of the time. Folks who use those ways have more time to reconsider and maybe stop – something we call partial suspension. Or they may not be successful because those methods often fail. But none of those things are an option when a firearm is used.  Once the trigger is pulled, there’s no going back.”

On top of what is known about the lethality of guns, three different studies have shown that suicide is an impulsive act with a very short period of time between when a person considers suicide and actually makes an attempt. In 71% of the cases, less than an hour passed between when a person thought about committing suicide and made the attempt. In 90% of other cases, less than a day passed.

“Those figures matter,” Wetenkamp says. Suicidal crises are short. A friend or family member temporarily removing access to the most lethal way can determine whether or not the person survives. “Gun owners aren’t more suicidal. The problem is that with people in a suicidal crisis who have access to guns, their attempts are more fatal. Thirty-three percent of young men who survived a suicide attempt using a gun were asked why they chose a firearm. Their response? ‘Because it was there.’ Suicidal crises are brief – they last less than a day. If we can temporarily get those most lethal means less than an arm’s length away, we can save lives.”

Different misconceptions prompt a push back on temporarily removing guns. A common one? If someone can’t use a gun, they’ll just use something else.  “Great,” Wetenkamp said. “They’re more likely to survive.” Studies also show that nine out of ten who survive a suicide attempt don’t go on to die by suicide. Another common misconception? This is an attempt to take away someone’s gun forever. “No, it’s the opposite of that. I’ve talked to a lot of gun owners and this is no different than saying, ‘Hey, we’re just going to go over to so and so’s house who’s having a hard time. We’re going to just take the guns out of the house and hold them until the hard time has passed.’”

Wetenkamp has no illusions that reducing easy access to firearms is the sole answer to veteran suicide. Larger, more expansive strategies are needed, such as the governor’s challenge, part of a federal initiative to lower suicide rates.

The governor’s challenge has four priority areas -- access to responsive care, making people better prepared to work with veterans, making gun locks available.

Expansion of the Colorado “Gun Shop” project is also a priority. “Gun Shop” involves distributing “lethal means” safety educational materials to gun owners and firearms advocates around the state who then distribute information to sites in their community appealing to people in the military, such as gun shops and gun ranges. “We want to educate people while increasing awareness, engaging the community and building relationships – and how temporary removal can reduce suicide rates.” 

Other resources are available as well, including Operation Veteran Strong,  mantherapy.org and suicide prevention on the CDPHE website.

“Every veteran is different. Every suicide is different. But reducing access to lethal means can help save lives.”