VA Gives Gun Locks To Veterans To Prevent Suicides

Mar 7, 2013

Every day an estimated twenty-two veterans kill themselves in the U.S. and most of them will use a gun to do so according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. This trend mirrors the general population where more people kill themselves with guns than with all other methods combined. The VA is trying to help with a program that offers gun locks to veterans for free. The thinking is that if they lock their guns up they might not reach for them in the spur of the moment. 

In the lobby of the VA hospital in Newington Connecticut, three police officers have set up a table covered with dozens of cable gun locks and a sign that says “free.” There's a lot of foot traffic here, several people walk up and take them, no questions asked. Officer: how are you doing guys? Officer: How are you, need a gun lock? Man: Those are for pistols I don't own a pistol. Officer: They'll work on a shotgun, grab one."  The VA began giving out the locks in 2008, modeling a national gun safety program called Project Childsafe. A firearms trade group partners with local police departments and VA medical campuses to hand them out. Sergeant Bart Wichowski is a firearms instructor for the VA in Connecticut. He stands over the display table, no guns, just plenty of bright yellow gun locks wrapped in plastic. He picks one up to show how easy it is to use. "Bring it down over here and it would go right thru where the magazine would go so this way it’s going to lock the slide in place. You can't insert a magazine, you can't rack the slide no ammo can go inside. " This event is held a couple times a year. While some veterans take the locks themselves, Wichowski-a veteran himself-says sometimes mental health providers ask for one with a specific person in mind.  "At those times we've actually had conversations with the veterans themselves. I've always said 'hey, listen if you're going down the road maybe bring the gun to somebody else." Many veterans I spoke with say it’s common among them to give their gun to a close friend or family member when dealing with mental health issues. The VA doesn't track how many gun locks it gives out or whether they're even effective. Rather, the devices are viewed as a stalling technique in the event a veteran picks up a gun in a moment of crisis. VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator, Maureen Pasko says their first priority is getting a gun out of the home. "Even on a temporary basis, that's always the goal. And the gun locks for us are really if we've tried everything and we can't get someone to agree to that then we go to the gun locks." In theory this option makes sense, but to a veteran who has struggled with suicide, not so much: "The only way to prevent that vet from committing suicide is somebody close to him or her stopping them either physically or removing everything." Matt Anderson is a 24-year old former Marine living in Connecticut. He struggled with depression and considered suicide he says because right before a deployment to Iraq, he broke his back during a training exercise: "When you get injured you're called broken. You're a broken Marine. You're given this label. People will look down on you. " Luckily Anderson shared his suicidal thoughts with a friend who alerted his Marine commanders. He was immediately sent to a local hospital where he got help for depression and learned ways to manage stress. Two years later, Anderson is in college. "It’s been a really rough transition for me. I’m still transitioning. I still use military time. I still write my dates the way the military writes their dates. I still call my dorm the barracks sometimes. My parents would have liked the switch to be instant but…I’m working on it.”  Anderson is a regular at the local Vet Center where he talks about his issues.  He says a veteran in trouble needs that kind of support to keep him or her from picking up a gun. Statistics show a suicide attempt by gun is fatal 85 percent of the time. 

This story originally aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.