More airmen died by suicide in 2019 than have been killed in combat operations during America’s 18-year-long war in Afghanistan.
Last year, 137 uniformed airmen and Air Force civilian employees died by suicide, representing a 33% increase versus 2018’s data. The Air Force hopes a new initiative — distribution of free cable-style locks for personal firearms — will begin to slow the trend.
The Air Force is shipping 150,000 cable gun locks to every installation in the United States for distribution to service members on a first-come, first-served basis. Approximately 35,000 locks will make it to Air Force installations in the Washington metropolitan area between Joint Base Andrews, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and the Pentagon.
“Extra Minutes Are Precious”
Though suicide rates in the military are similar to the civilian population, the military community is at increased risk due to factors like continued exposure to high-stress environments, traumatic head injuries and substance abuse. But the largest risk factor is access to firearms. The most common method of death by suicide is with a personally owned firearm — not military-issued weapons, according to data released by the Pentagon.
A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed through psychological autopsy of 135 U.S. Army soldiers who died by suicide, that firearm accessibility was associated with a significant increase in risk; the soldiers were more likely to own firearms and have immediate access to them compared with civilians. Service members generally have more exposure to guns than the civilian population and are more likely to own a personal firearm than their civilian counterparts.
The Air Force acknowledges that cable locks won’t solve the root causes, but leaders hope a “time based approach” will give airmen an extra moment to think.
“Adding a cable lock to a firearm adds, on average, a couple minutes to a person’s ability to pull the trigger once they’ve accessed the weapon,” said Brig. Gen. Claude Tudor, director of the Air Force Office of Integrated Resilience, in a statement. “When a person in distress is trying to access that weapon to potentially do harm, those extra minutes are precious to prevent a tragedy.”
Tudor told the Air Force Times the program has become even more timely during the coronavirus pandemic as airmen and their families spend more time at home.
“We are trying to help leaders across the services express empathy and compassion for the upheaval that our forces and families are currently experiencing,” Tudor said. “Do they know who is isolated? Do they [know] who’s around toxic partners 24/7? Do they know who is under stress of disciplinary actions or investigations?”
The cable lock program has been in development for months, on the heels of a branchwide “Safety Stand-Down” ordered by Air Force leadership after 79 suicides had occurred by July 2019 — nearly as many as were recorded in 2018, in half the time.
In prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in March, Air Force leaders said suicide prevention remains a “difficult challenge,” citing existing stigmas related to seeking help with mental illness.
Cable Locks And Where To Find Them
Cable locks have always been provided with all firearm sales at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, a department store retailer on Army and Air Force bases worldwide that sells firearms at many of its locations.. Better known to service members as the BX or post exchange, AAFES is a non-appropriated fund activity that is part of the Department of Defense and is primarily funded by revenue generated from sales.
Joint Base Andrews and the Pentagon have already received around 3,000 of the promised 35,000 cable locks, but the pandemic has slowed down the delivery process according to Kimberley Tobiere-Agnew, the violence prevention integrator for Joint Base Andrews.
Regardless of branch, anyone in the military community (including civilian employees) can visit the violence prevention office on Joint Base Andrews to request a free lock.
“Right now, they’re picking them up from me directly. I’ve had one person do a canvass of his unit and say ‘We need 16 locks’ and I give them out, no questions asked,” said Tobiere-Agnew. “We’re operating in a joint base environment. I’m not going to turn anyone away because they’re wearing the wrong uniform.”
When Are Locks Required?
In October 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act made it unlawful for any licensed firearm importer, manufacturer or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a secure gun storage or safety device. That means AAFES was already required by law to provide some kind of firearm lock at the point of sale, but the law has notable exceptions.
If a weapon is transferred to another federal firearm licensee or law enforcement officer, a lock is not required. The legislation also exempts transfers by private sellers like what you might find at a gun show. The law also doesn’t apply to the sale of rifles, which are popular among military personnel. The new cable lock program attempts to address those gaps.
Airmen who live on Joint Base Andrews are allowed to keep personally owned firearms in their homes, but not in the barracks. Service members and their dependents have the choice to store the weapons in their house “under lock and key” with the ammunition in a separate location, but they aren’t required to have a lock on the weapon itself. Air Force personnel residing off-base must follow storage laws in their jurisdiction.
Personal weapons can also be stored at the base armory, a requirement for anyone living in the barracks on Joint Base Andrews. Existing weapons and new purchases must be registered with base security within 72 hours. After the Washington region saw an uptick in firearm sales as a result of the pandemic, the 11th Security Forces Squadron at Joint Base Andrews issued a reminder about the existing regulations to new gun owners.
The distribution of cable locks is intended to be paired with the education and training already provided by the base’s violence prevention integrators.
What Cable Locks Can’t Do
Cable locks have been criticized by gun violence researchers for being an ineffective way to prevent a gun owner from accessing their own weapon, citing low quality-control standards that make them easy to tamper with.
Bill Brassard is senior communications director for the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Project ChildSafe program, which has distributed cable locks through law enforcement partners since 1999. He says the locks themselves aren’t effective without robust firearm safety education.
“For lock giveaway programs to be successful, there needs to be a robust gun safety education component to them,” said Brassard. “The free lock often gets this larger conversation started about how best to store your gun so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Brassard says when it comes to suicide prevention, any storage method that puts time and distance between a person in crisis and a method of suicide can save a life. “Research suggests that people intent on accessing a gun to attempt suicide don’t seek out another method if their chosen method is not accessible,” Brassard said.
That delay is the essence of the Air Force’s program. “The time that it takes to stop, find the key, unlock the lock,” Tobiere-Agnew said, “can give them that moment of time to slow down and think about it.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.