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Non-combat firearm deaths, injuries soar

Oct. 16, 2012 - 09:21AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 16, 2012 - 09:21AM  |  
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Outside of the war zone, active-duty troops are dying by firearms at a rate 62 percent higher than a decade ago and are injured by firearms at three times the rate they were in 2002, according to a Defense Department report.

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Outside of the war zone, active-duty troops are dying by firearms at a rate 62 percent higher than a decade ago and are injured by firearms at three times the rate they were in 2002, according to a Defense Department report.

In a trend that defies the armed services' focus on weapon and range safety, as well as suicide prevention, 4,657 service members were injured by firearms outside of combat from 2002 to 2011, more than one-third, or 1,623, fatally.

In the previous decade, by comparison, the military had 446 deaths from gunshot wounds not related to combat and 1,919 injuries requiring hospitalization, according to a September report from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.

A large proportion of the fatalities were suicides: 28 percent of the total fatalities from 2002 to 2011 were self-inflicted. And among troops ages 30 or older, 84 percent of firearms fatalities were suicides.

The Pentagon is poised to launch a new suicide awareness campaign in conjunction with the Veterans Affairs Department aimed at educating troops, family and friends to recognize the signs of suicide and seek help.

The campaign also will focus on encouraging them to take action by removing items from a home that could be used in a suicide attempt.

"Everyone needs to be a part of the solution, to know the signs of suicide and be able to take action, whether it's removing ammunition from a weapon, or firearms from a home, or keeping tabs on prescription pills," said Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith.

But any mention of narrowing troops' gun ownership rights is extremely controversial.

DoD and VA health officials have pressed for new legislation that would allow military leaders to ask troops about privately owned firearms and confiscate them if someone shows signs of suicidal thoughts or ideation.

But a provision of the 2011 Defense Authorization Act expressly restricts commanders from collecting or recording information on gun ownership by troops who live off base. Many commanders have interpreted this to mean they cannot ask a service member whether he has a privately owned weapon.

An amendment to the pending 2013 defense authorization bill would allow mental health providers and commanders to inquire about private weapons if they think a service member is at risk for hurting himself.

The issue is critical to saving lives, said Dr. Allen Frances, professor emeritus at Duke University and former chairman of the task force that drafted the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a standard reference work for psychiatrists and other experts.

"One of the first things you do in everyday practice is determine [the individual's] access to firearms. For most people, suicide is impulsive, and if the person can get by the moment of lethal suicidality, they might survive," said Frances, who advocated for the military to be more proactive in restricting at-risk troops' access to private firearms in a Psychiatric Times blog entry.

Although the rates of gun injuries and deaths have risen markedly in the military, they remain lower than rates in the comparable civilian community, a bit of good news for the services.

In fact, the report said, "Some aspects of military service may be protective against gun-related injury," such as firearm-related knowledge and experience, full-time employment and routine drug testing.

Among the services, rates of both firearm-related deaths and injuries were highest in the Army and Marine Corps. The Navy had the lowest death rate, and the Air Force the lowest injury rate.

The death rates were highest among white non-Hispanics, while injury rates were higher among blacks. Troops in combat arms and law enforcement positions had elevated rates of injury and death among military skill fields, the report found.

Researchers noted that their data underestimate the total number of firearms injuries and deaths across the military because they do not include non-combat shootings in Iraq and Afghanistan or incidents among nonmobilized National Guard and reserve personnel.

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