Our country is in the middle of a gun suicide crisis, one that is particularly acute among our veterans. The veteran suicide rate is more than twice as high as the non-veteran adult suicide rate. Today more than 6,000 American veterans die by suicide each year, and nearly 70% of these deaths involve firearms. We must do more to protect the veterans who risked their lives to protect us.
In February 2018, a 33-year-old Iraq War veteran named Justin shot and killed himself in the parking lot of the Minneapolis VA Hospital. Days earlier, the former Marine had called the Veterans Crisis Line reporting suicidal ideation and said he had immediate access to guns. After being referred to the emergency room of the Minneapolis VA Hospital, Justin spent four days there before tragically taking his life with a gun the day after he was released.
A report released in September outlined a number of failures on the part of the Minneapolis VA Hospital, including a lack of proper documentation of Justin’s access to firearms. Three members of the VA staff reported that Justin had immediate access to guns, three reported that he didn’t, and three more were unsure.
The system failed Justin, and we continue to fail our veterans by neglecting to face our country’s gun suicide crisis. From 2007 to 2016, the veteran suicide rate increased by 32%. Increases were particularly dramatic among veterans ages 18 to 34.
Research suggests that having a gun in the home triples a person’s overall risk of suicide, and nearly half of all veterans own firearms. If Justin hadn’t had access to guns during his moment of crisis, his death might have been prevented. Because 85% of gun suicide attempts end in death, when individuals in crisis reach for a gun, they rarely survive.
Gun safety laws like extreme risk protection orders (ERPO), allow families, household members, or law enforcement officers to proactively save a loved one’s life by petitioning a court for an order temporarily restricting a person’s access to guns if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. So far, 11 states have passed versions of ERPO laws. Minnesota is not among them, but had it been, those closest to Justin would have had a critical tool to help him in his time of need.
By limiting access to guns among those at a proven risk of suicide, we can save thousands of American lives every year. We owe it to our veterans to fight for these lifesaving laws.