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Firearm Storage as a Suicide Prevention Tactic for Veterans


On February 28, the San Francisco VA Health Care System will join with the Greater San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) for a one-day conference on ‘Advances in Safe Storage of Firearms and Preventive Strategies for Veterans at Risk for Suicide.’

DAV selected Russell B. Lemle, Ph.D., for its 2020 Special Recognition Award. Lemle is a senior policy analyst at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute and former Chief Psychologist at the San Francisco VA Healthcare System. DAV recognized Lemle “for his outstanding commitment and significant contributions to improve suicide prevention strategies for veterans and particularly his efforts on lethal means safety in this community.” Lemle is pictured with Joy Ilem, DAV's National Legislative Director.

Russell B. Lemle, Ph.D., worked in the San Francisco VA Healthcare System from 1981 to 2019 and served as the Chief Psychologist for the last 25 years. Now retired, Lemle maintains his own practice and works as a VHPI Senior Policy Analyst.

Lemle spoke with VHPI Executive Director Brett W. Copeland about the conference and new developments around lethal means safety and suicide prevention. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Brett Copeland, VHPI Executive Director: This upcoming conference features many different veterans, advocates, subject matter experts, healthcare providers, and even a firearm organization. Why is it essential to have all these organizations in one room? Do you think this type of collaboration is new or significant?

Russell B. Lemle, Ph.D.: This conference follows a partnership the VA established a year and a half ago with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Those two organizations are developing various projects related to the safe storage of firearms and other lethal means.

The partnership is extremely significant in that it is the first time a major firearm constituency worked on a national level with the VA. Along with AFSP, they’ve produced a 22-page toolkit that is being rolled out broadly to foster community coalitions that promote secure storage of firearms, with an emphasis on service members, veterans, and their families. The VA partnered with NSSF to develop a 2-page brochure for veterans and their families, and a pocket card for clinicians on means safety messaging.

Copeland: Is this a significant development in regards to veteran suicide prevention? Had firearms been a part of the conversation before?

Lemle: Until a couple of decades ago, access to firearms had not been noted for being a risk factor in suicide. It’s something that has come into awareness more recently.

Copeland: Many veterans report they won’t use Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services because they’re afraid the VA will take their guns away. Do you think the VA/NSSF/AFSP partnership, along with the conversations at the conference, will help dispel that myth?

Lemle: The 2018 National Academies Survey reported that 21% of post-9/11 veterans with mental health diagnoses and conditions are concerned about the confiscation of their firearms if they obtain VA treatment and are therefore reticent to seek help for their conditions. The firearm confiscation myth persists to this day. It’s a huge underlying factor in terms of why many veterans, and many veterans with mental health diagnoses and who are at risk of suicide, don’t use VA services at all. This conference is just one part of helping dispel that myth.

In 2018, the VA sponsored the Gun Safety Matters Challenge to develop personal gun technology for safer in-home firearm storage. This is especially relevant for at-risk veterans who are reticent to transfer their firearms outside the home. Some very innovative product designs were submitted. Last December, the VA placed an Op-Ed for public awareness around the connection of storage to suicide. The VA has an information website that is available for public use for how you talk to individuals who are gun owners about safe storage and how family members might do the same.

It’s to VA’s credit for overtly recognizing the connection and being out in the forefront. Safe storage and lethal means safety is a common training now for VA mental health professionals and has been added as required questions to the Suicide Risk Evaluation and Suicide Prevention Safety Plan.

Copeland: Has a similar conference or conversation around lethal means safety taken place before?

Lemle: We held a similar conference in 2016.

Copeland: What has changed since then around suicide prevention efforts for veterans?

Lemle: Lethal means safety is now formally part of the ten-year national strategy for preventing veteran suicide. The fact that there is a website that has information available for the public is remarkable. Additionally, VA experts are available for individual consultations with mental health clinicians who would like to help care for veteran patients who are at risk of suicide and report having access to firearms. There are new city and state initiatives to get material into the hands of stakeholders and communities that help educate the public.

One of the things that had started before the last conference, but has developed more extensively, is outreach to gun shops and gun ranges. All of these efforts, when put together, become more embedded in the minds of firearm owners, their friends, and family to remain on the alert for buddies who may be at some risk and showing signs of distress or crisis.

Copeland: What voices are important to strengthen in the conversation around suicide prevention, and will be included at this conference?

Lemle: From my perspective, there are two crucial voices that need to be even more included. First, the veteran’s voice. At the conference, we will have Joy Ilem, the National Legislative Director of Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and Jay Zimmerman, who is a VA peer specialist, combat veteran, and has a personal history, and history with fellow veterans that have intersected with firearms and firearm suicides. Second is the voice of firearm owners. President of National Shooting Sports Foundation Joseph Bartozzi will give a presentation as well.

Those voices are essential to moving us forward. Firearm owners and veteran firearm owners must be part of the dialogue and part of the development of strategies and ideas. Veteran suicide prevention is a common cause. On a larger scale, we need to make safe storage an accepted cultural response of individuals who have an elevated risk of suicide.

Copeland: It seems to be en vogue on Capitol Hill to take a ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ approach to veterans’ health care, and, in particular, suicide prevention. Do you think that’s an appropriate approach, or are some activities crowding out what actually works?

Lemle: What has not been tackled at all on Capitol Hill is dispelling the myth we discussed earlier – that the VA is going to take away our firearms. It has to be corrected. Repeatedly. Historically, there was an anxiety that any approach that dealt with firearm suicides would be an infringement on second amendment rights. Lawmakers tried to address suicide and yet never talk about firearms. There is beginning to be an understanding that there are appropriate ways to conduct suicide prevention efforts that don’t compromise second amendment rights.

Ownership would remain intact. The number of firearms would not diminish – but we could still store firearms differently to create time and space between the thought of suicide and the ability to take action.

Copeland: What brought you to the VA and made you spend a long career working with veterans?

Lemle: The VA Healthcare System is a phenomenal example of our national community taking care of its own. Veterans are at the heart and core of our country. My father was a World War II Navy veteran, and my brother was in the reserves. But, it was what I just mentioned – community and service – that was the moral compass that really fueled my four-decade career there.

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