Military service member and veteran suicide is a public health crisis in America and firearms play a critical role, as firearms are the most common method chosen across these populations. Though there is no single explanation or cause for suicide, there are risk factors that do increase the risk for suicide, including access to firearms. Firearm ownership does not necessarily increase suicidal ideation, but access to and familiarity with firearms increases the capability for suicide, which is considered necessary for how suicidal thoughts progress into suicide attempts. Since firearms are the deadliest suicide method in America, these attempts are much more likely to be lethal than suicide attempts using other methods. While half of the suicides in the U.S. are by firearm, 60-70% percent of service member and veteran suicides are by firearm. Military family members also die by firearm suicide more often than expected. Firearms are fundamental to military culture, but they cannot be ignored in addressing suicide.
If you are a veteran, service member, or military family member and you need support now, please contact the Military and Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) Option 1, text 838255, or visit veteranscrisisline.net.
Firearms are the most common suicide method across the Active Component, Reserve, and National Guard. Nine in ten firearms used in military suicides are personally-owned, not military-issued. In 2018, nearly two-thirds of suicides among military service members were by firearm.
number of deaths
Firearms are the most common suicide method for veterans. In 2017, 69.4% of veteran suicide decedents died by firearm injury, compared to 48.1% of nonveteran adult suicide decedents.
On Veterans Day 2019, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence released a new report that highlights the epidemic of veteran and military service member suicide by firearm and recommends the solutions needed to reduce these deaths.
The report Prevent Firearm Suicide: Service Members and Veterans shares the most recent data on veteran and military service member firearm suicides, and advocates for a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy that includes policies and programs pertaining to reducing access to lethal means, especially firearms.
Interventions to prevent firearm suicide are important for civilian, service member, and veteran populations alike, as well as for their families, and must be implemented and adapted as needed in settings for all four. Both the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) recognize that access to firearms increases the risk for suicide and that in order to meaningfully prevent suicide among service members, veterans, and their families, addressing access to firearms must be part of a comprehensive suicide prevention plan.
Defense Suicide Prevention Office’s slides, “Lethal Means Safety Counseling to Reduce Suicide Risk”
Department of Veterans Affairs’ guide to talking to a veteran about firearm safety
Department of Veterans Affairs’ “Safety Plan Quick Guide for Clinicians” handout.
Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense Clinical Practice Guideline for the Assessment and Management of Patients at Risk for Suicide
Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence’s “Prevent Firearm Suicide: Service Members and Veterans” report
Overwatch Project “Longform Conversation Guide” for talking about firearm suicide with veterans
Overwatch Project’s videos of veterans discussing veteran suicide by firearm
Psychological Health Center of Excellence’s “Managing Suicide Risk and Access to Firearms: Guidelines for Providers”
Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Suicide Prevention’s, “Lethal Means and Suicide among Veterans: Intervening by Safety Planning and Focusing on Firearm Safety” presentation
Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Veteran Suicide Prevention’s “Firearm Safety Matters” presentation
Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Suicide Prevention’s “Firearm Storage” infographic on Veterans’ firearm locking device preferences
Veterans Crisis Line’s Firearm Safety Video highlights the importance of safer storage practices
Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute’s “Veterans, Firearms and Suicide: The Importance of Lethal Means Safety as a Prevention Strategy”
Allchin A, Chaplin V, & Horwitz J. (2019). Limiting access to lethal means: Applying the social ecological model for firearm suicide prevention. Injury Prevention.
Anestis M & Capron DW. (2016). The associations between state veteran population rates, handgun legislation, and statewide suicide rates. Journal of Psychiatric Research.
Bryan CJ, Bryan AO, Anestis MD, Khazem LR, Harris JA, May AM, & Thomsen C. (2019). Firearm availability and storage practices among military personnel who have thought about suicide. Journal of American Medical Association.
Cleveland EC, Azrael D, Simonetti JA, & Miller M. (2017). Firearm ownership among American veterans: Findings from the 2015 National Firearm Survey. Injury Epidemiology.
Dempsey CL, Benedek DM, Zuromski KL, et al. (2019). Association of firearm ownership, use, accessibility, and storage practices with suicide risk among US army soldiers. Journal of American Medical Association.
Goldberg SB, Tucker RP, Abbas M, Schultz ME, Hiserodt M, Thomas KA, Anestis MD, & Wyman MF. (2019). Firearm ownership and capability for suicide in post-deployment National Guard service members. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior.
Hoffmire CA & Bossarte RM. (2014). A reconsideration of the correlation between veteran status and firearm suicide in the general population. Injury Prevention.
Karras E, Stokes CM, Warfield SC, Barth SK, Bossarte RM. (2019). A randomized controlled trial of public messaging to promote safe firearm storage among U.S. military veterans. Social Science and Medicine.
McCarten JM, Hoffmire CA, & Bossarte RM. (2015). Changes in overall and firearm veteran suicide rates by gender, 2001-2010. American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Miller M. (2012). Preventing suicide by preventing lethal injury: the need to act on what we already know. American Journal of Public Health.
Simonetti JA, Azrael D, & Miller M. (2019). Firearm storage practices and risk perceptions among a nationally representative sample of U.S. veterans with and without self-harm risk factor. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior.
Simonetti JA, Azrael D, Rowhani-Rahbar A, & Miller M. (2018). Firearm storage practices among American veterans. American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Smith PN, Currier J, & Drescher K. (2015). Firearm ownership in veterans entering residential PTSD treatment: Associations with suicide ideation, attempts, and combat exposure. Psychiatry Research.
Swanson J, Easter M, Brancu M, VA Mid-Atlantic MIRECC Workgroup, & Fairbank JA. (2018). Informing federal policy on firearm restrictions for veterans with fiduciaries: Risk indicators in the post-deployment mental health study. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research.
Valenstein M, Walters H, Pfeiffer PN, Ganoczy D, Ilgen MA, Miller MJ, Fiorillo M, & Bossarte RM. (2019). Possession of household firearms and firearm-related discussions with clinicians among veterans receiving VA mental health care. Archives of Suicide Research.
Valenstein M, Walters H, Pfeiffer PN, Ganoczy D, Miller M, Fiorillo M, & Bossarte RM. (2018). Acceptability of potential interventions to increase firearm safety among patients in VA mental health treatment. General Hospital Psychiatry.
Walters H, Kulkarni M, Forman J, Roeder K, Travis J, & Valenstein M. (2012). Feasibility and acceptability of interventions to delay gun access in VA mental health settings. General Hospital Psychiatry.
Action Tank is a group of Philadelphia-area military veterans working to improve the lives of America’s former servicemen and women. Action Tank is utilizing their unique position as veterans to develop innovative solutions to ensure a safe America while also protecting our right to bear arms. Action Tank recently wrote an op-ed supporting extreme risk laws as a suicide prevention tool for veterans at risk of suicide.
This page was last updated on February 27, 2020.