With nearly half of all suicides in the military having been committed with privately owned firearms, the Pentagon and Congress are moving to establish policies intended to separate at-risk service members from their personal weapons.
The issue is a thorny one for the Pentagon, with gun-rights advocates and many service members fiercely opposing any policies that could be construed as limiting the private ownership of firearms.
But with suicides continuing to rise this year, senior Defense Department officials are developing a suicide prevention campaign that will encourage friends and families of potentially suicidal service members to safely store or voluntarily remove personal firearms from their homes.
"This is not about authoritarian regulation," Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in an interview. "It is about the spouse understanding warning signs and, if there are firearms in the home, responsibly separating the individual at risk from the firearm."
Dr. Woodson, who declined to provide details, said the campaign would be introduced over the coming months. He said it would also include measures to encourage service members, their friends and relatives to remove possibly dangerous prescription drugs from the home of potentially suicidal troops.
Also, Congress appears poised to enact legislation that would allow military mental health counselors and commanders to talk to troops about their private firearms. The measure would amend a law enacted in 2011 that prohibited the Defense Department from collecting information from service members about lawfully owned firearms kept at home.
The 2011 measure, part of the Defense Authorization Act and passed at the urging of the National Rifle Association, was viewed by many military officials as preventing commanders and counselors from discussing gun safety with potentially suicidal troops. But the NRA said the provision was a response to efforts by Army commanders to maintain records of all the firearms owned by their soldiers.
The new amendment, part of the defense authorization bill for 2013 that has passed in the House but not in the Senate, would allow mental health professionals and commanders to ask service members about their personal firearms if they have "reasonable grounds" to believe the person is at "high risk" of committing suicide or harming others.