Despite promises to prioritize lethal means safety in their suicide prevention efforts, Veterans Affairs officials aren’t focusing enough on the issue, according to new findings released Thursday by a government watchdog.
The problems outlined in a new VA inspector general report included clinicians not completing training on firearms safety, clinicians not using the training in appointments with patients, and administrators not reinforcing the importance of the issue with follow-up training and guidance.
“Given the prevalence of firearm-related suicidal behavior among veterans and the effectiveness of diminished access to firearms in the reduction of suicide, suicide risk assessment and safety planning should include both firearms access and discussion of safe storage,” the report stated.
“Failure to adequately assess firearms access and discuss safe storage of firearms may contribute to a failure to promote distance between the patient and access to firearms as a means of suicide.”
In September, VA officials released their annual report on suicide among veterans, showing that in 2020 the rate of those deaths fell to under 17 a day, the lowest level in 14 years.
Past VA studies on suicide have shown that veterans are more likely to use firearms in suicide attempts than civilians without a military background. In 2020, about half of all suicide deaths in America were the result of firearms use, but 71% of veteran suicide deaths involved a gun.
In recent years, VA officials announced plans for more staff training and more public service announcements on gun storage and mental health help in order to improve outreach and prevention efforts.
All clinicians are required to undergo suicide risk training, but the inspector general report found that about 10% of staff across VA medical centers did not finish specific training related to gun safety issues.
Of the ones who did, about 19% failed to ask most patients about firearms access when developing safety plans for their care.
Investigators also noted that the mandated Lethal Means Safety Education course is a “one-time” event. Ongoing training to convey the latest research and best practices would be more effective, they said.
In response to the findings, VA officials said they are working on improvements to their training and monitoring.
“Most suicidal crises are brief, and the time from decision to action can be less than one hour,” VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said in a statement provided to the inspector general. “We can save lives if it takes longer for a person to access the means to harm themselves after the moment they have the impulse to act.”
The issue of gun safety in VA suicide prevention efforts has been controversial in the past, with some conservative lawmakers saying that even discussions about gun locks and safe storage initiatives amounts to an infringement of veterans’ Second Amendment rights.
The inspector general’s report acknowledged that, saying that “mistrust of authority or government systems, and reluctance to give up means of self-protection, were factors that might impede patient disclosure of firearms access.”
But investigators also noted that VA’s training on the topic “appears to increase clinicians’ confidence that discussions with patients about their firearms access and storage decreases a patient’s suicide risk,” underscoring the importance of the work.
The full report is available on the inspector general’s website.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 to speak with a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.