A suicide prevention committee that was established by the Pentagon last year is recommending instituting a waiting period for gun purchases on bases and raising the minimum age for buying firearms in an attempt to reduce the number of suicides among service members.
The Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC) announced the suggested measures as part of a broader set of 127 recommendations to reverse the current trend of suicides in the military, which has steadily increased over the last 15 years.
The committee recommended putting in place a seven day waiting period for gun purchases on Defense Department facilities and a four day waiting period for ammunition purchases.
The committee was created by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in May 2022 to review the Department of Defense’s ongoing suicide prevention efforts. The committee submitted a first set of 10 recommendations to Austin in December before submitting its latest report.
Dr. Craig Bryan, one of the members of the committee, said a high percentage of suicides on base involved guns purchased at base military exchanges.
“There’s a very strong scientific basis showing that waiting period, even as short as seven days, significantly reduce suicide rates,” said Bryan, a lethal means safety expert, in urging the Defense Department to “follow the science.”
The committee also recommended raising the minimum age to purchase weapons on base to 25 years old.
“There’s arguably only one thing that all researchers agree on,” said Bryan, “and that one thing is that taking steps to slow down convenient access to highly lethal methods like firearms is the single most effective strategy for saving lives.”
According to the Defense Department’s annual report, 519 service members died by suicide in 2021, the most recent number for which numbers are available. Though the latest figure is a slight decrease from the previous year’s 582 suicides, the overall number has still been trending upward.
“We will review those closely,” said Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder of the latest recommendations. “I don’t have anything to announce today in terms of what steps we may take, but again this is a very important topic to the Secretary and to the entire Department of Defense.”
However, Dr. Rajeev Ramchand, an epidemiologist with the RAND corporation and another member of the SPRIRC, told reporters on Friday that service members the committee spoke with said they felt the Defense Department’s “current approach … was more of a check-the-block approach” and that suicide prevention was “not discussed frequently.”
Ramchand gave an example of a series of required suicide prevention trainings that took place over a course of several days, saying service members sat in a dark auditorium where many of them fell asleep or “were on their phones.”
“It’s hard to think this is having an effect,” Ramchand said.
In addition to gun safety regulations, the committee also urged the Defense Department to address the lack of mental health services available for service members, including hiring psychologists and other mental health specialists quickly.
“When service members were getting into care, they might not be seen for their second visit for about 6 weeks,” said Rebecca Blais, a sexual assault and suicide expert who is on the committee.
Often, when job openings in mental health services were posted, the hiring process could drag out over a year, at which point the psychologist or other professional was no longer available, Blais said.
In cases where mental health services were not available or already booked, the committee urged the Defense Department to increase insurance payments so service members could seek mental health experts outside of the military’s healthcare system.
Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one have contemplated suicide, call The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a trained counselor.