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The Department of Veterans Affairs began giving out gun locks in 2008, modeling a national gun safety program called Project ChildSafe (AP)

VA Offers Free Gun Locks To Help Prevent Vet Suicides

by Lucy Nalpathanchil
Mar 6, 2013 (All Things Considered / Connecticut Public Radio)

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Lucy Nalpathanchil

Every day an estimated 22 veterans kill themselves in the U.S. and most of them use a gun to do so, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. This trend mirrors the general population where more people kill themselves with guns than by all other methods combined.

The VA is trying to help with a program that offers gun locks to veterans for free. The thinking is that if they lock their guns up they might not reach for them in the spur of the moment.

The VA began giving out the locks in 2008, modeling a national gun safety program called Project ChildSafe. A firearms trade group partners with local police departments and VA medical campuses to hand them out.

Sgt. Bart Wichowski is a firearms instructor for the VA in Connecticut. He stands over a display table in the lobby of the VA hospital in Newington, with dozens of cable gun locks — no guns — and a sign that says "free." There's a lot of foot traffic here. Several people walk up and take them, no questions asked.

Wichowski, a veteran himself, picks one up to show how easy it is to use.

"Bring it down over here, and it would go right through where the magazine would go, so this way, it's going to lock the slide in place," he says. "You can't insert a magazine. You can't rack the slide. No ammo can go inside."

This event is held a couple times a year. Wichowski says sometimes mental health providers ask for a lock with a specific person in mind, and sometimes veterans come in for one themselves.

"At those times we've actually had conversations with the veterans," he says. "I've always said, 'Hey, listen, if you're going down the road, maybe bring the gun to somebody else.' "

Many veterans say it's common to give a gun to a close friend or family member when dealing with mental health issues. The VA doesn't track how many gun locks it gives out or whether they're even effective. Rather, the devices are viewed as a stalling technique in the event a veteran picks up a gun in a moment of crisis.

VA suicide prevention counselor Maureen Pasko says the first priority is getting a gun out of the home.

"Even on a temporary basis, that's always the goal. ... If we've tried everything and we can't get someone to agree to that, then we'll go to the gun locks," she says.

In theory, this option makes sense, but to a veteran who has struggled with suicide, it doesn't really.

"The only way to prevent that vet from committing suicide is somebody close to him or her stopping them, either physically or removing everything," says Matt Anderson, a 24-year-old former Marine.

Right before a deployment to Iraq, Anderson broke his back during a training exercise.

"When you get injured, you're called broken. You're a broken Marine. You're given this label. People will look down on you," says Anderson, who struggled with depression and considered suicide.

Anderson shared his suicidal thoughts with a friend who alerted his Marine commanders. He was immediately sent to a hospital where he got help for depression and learned ways to manage stress. Two years later, Anderson is in college.

"It's been a really rough transition for me. I'm still transitioning. I still use military time. I still write my dates the way the military writes their dates. I still call my dorm 'the barracks' sometimes," he says. "My parents would have liked the switch to be instant, but I'm working on it."

Anderson is a regular at the local vet center where he talks about his issues. He says a veteran in trouble needs that kind of support to keep him or her from picking up a gun.

Statistics show a suicide attempt by gun is fatal 85 percent of the time.

Copyright 2014 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnpr.org.

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