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A Pentagon-appointed committee says easy access to guns leads to more military suicides

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Anthony Muhlstadt participates in an exercise aboard the USS Bataan March 7, 2020. Muhlstadt was a 23-year-old Marine Corps sergeant when he died by suicide in 2021 at Marine Corps Base Twentynine Palms in California.
Kaitlin Rowell
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U.S. Navy
200307-N-MY922-1097 Anthony Muhlstadt participates in an exercise aboard the USS Bataan March 7, 2020. Muhlstadt was a 23-year-old Marine Corps sergeant when he died by suicide in 2021 at Marine Corps Base Twentynine Palms in California.

An independent Pentagon committee formed last year to study military suicide released its report in February, detailing more than 100 recommendations to address the problem.

But while the Department of Defense announced immediate action on a number of the proposals — all focused on various aspects of mental health care - the department deferred action on some of the committee's strongest recommendations, which addressed access to guns.

Instead, it formed a working group to "assess the advisability and feasibility" of the firearms recommendations, among others.

Suicide rates in the military have been on the rise for the last decade, according to the Defense Department.

Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist and professor at Ohio State University, said addressing access to firearms is especially important to combating suicides in the military because service members are more likely to use guns to kill themselves.

Bryan, an Air Force veteran of the Iraq War, was among the experts who wrote February’s report. The committee spent almost a year researching military suicides.

He said that while just over half of all suicides in the U.S. involve a firearm, that number increases to two-thirds among military suicides. In the National Guard, the rate is four-fifths.

He said the committee heard over and over again from military leaders who were in the dark when it came to which of their service members even owned guns.

"We were really struck — we’re hearing multiple times from military lawyers, investigators ... 'the way that we discovered this service member had firearms on base was when they used it to kill themselves,'" Bryan said.

The committee recommended the Pentagon change the way guns are sold at military base exchanges. Those are essentially on-base department stores, selling everything from clothes and jewelry to electronics. Service members don’t have to pay sales tax on most items, making the exchanges attractive places to buy big-ticket goods such as TVs, computers, and appliances.

At almost 100 exchanges, service members can buy guns. Army and Air Force exchanges sold just over 74,000 guns in 2022, and Marine Corps exchanges sold more than 10,000, according to the services. The Navy said it made a “business decision” in the 1980s not to sell guns at its exchanges.

"We very quickly started learning that a significant percentage of service members who were dying by suicide on base were actually purchasing the firearms from that on-base military exchange,” Bryan said.

While military members have rights under the Second Amendment, Bryan said, the committee's mandate was only to recommend actions that could curb suicide. He said base gun purchases kept coming up.

“Although we don’t know the exact percentage, a large number of the suicides occurring on military bases were in essence sort of tied to firearm purchases, again, on base, maybe just a couple miles away from the barracks.”

In 2021, one of those guns was purchased by Marine Sgt. Anthony Muhlstadt at Marine Corps Base Twentynine Palms in California. Muhlstadt was 23 years old and committed to being a Marine “grunt,” said his mother, Tanya Mort.

Muhlstadt bought the gun at the base exchange. Situated in the Mojave Desert, Twentynine Palms is an isolated, sprawling base. Muhlstadt, who was single, lived in the barracks, where he was not supposed to keep his gun.

But periodic room inspections never uncovered the firearm, which, by regulations, was to be kept at the base armory. Muhlstadt started experiencing symptoms of depression and was prescribed the antidepressant Prozac, Mort said.

Then, on Nov. 19, 2021, Muhlstadt used his gun to kill himself.

The act appeared unplanned, Mort said, because earlier that day her son went shopping for batteries and body wash. He also bought an extra trigger lock, she said, because he was planning on storing his gun at another Marine's off-base residence while he went on leave.

Bryan said research supports such scenarios and is why the committee recommended action on guns.

"Amongst military personnel, over half — close to 60 percent of service members who attempt suicide — have this rapid intensification where they they first think about suicide on the day that they try to kill themselves," he said.

The Exchange at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama celebrates the grand opening of its new firearms counter February 17, 2017. According to the services, Army and Air Force exchanges sold just over 74,000 guns, and Marine Corps exchanges sold more than 10,000 guns in 2022.
Tammie Ramsouer
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U.S. Air Force
The Exchange at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama celebrates the grand opening of its new firearms counter February 17, 2017. According to the services, Army and Air Force exchanges sold just over 74,000 guns, and Marine Corps exchanges sold more than 10,000 guns in 2022.

Gun sale policies vary from base to base depending upon which state they're in. Some states have mandatory waiting periods for gun purchases, while in other states, service members can leave the exchange with their weapon the day they buy it.

The Pentagon-appointed committee said the military should standardize those policies across its exchanges — with regulations beyond state and federal gun laws.

Committee members recommended that no service member under 25 be sold a gun on base, because adults younger than that are at greater risk for suicide. It recommended a mandatory 7-day waiting period for gun purchases and an additional 4-day waiting period to buy ammunition following receipt of a gun bought at the exchange.

Another key recommendation would require an act of Congress.

An item in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act explicitly bars the Pentagon from tracking gun ownership among Defense Department personnel. This means military commanders are often unaware which troops have personal firearms at home. The committee called for that ban to be lifted.

But, there could be resistance in the ranks to that proposal, according to Matt Sampson, a writer and Marine reservist. Sampson, who spoke as a private citizen, not for the Marine Corps, said service members might not be comfortable sharing more of their personal information with their commanders.

"There's distrust for enhancing, in any way, the amount of control that your command can exert over your personal life," Sampson said.

Sampson reviews tactical gear for his website, Nylon Theory, and said for some in the military, gun ownership is just part of the culture.

"It's something that is popular with a lot of people in the military ... and it's not a bad thing at all," Sampson said. "There's plenty of people who go and they shoot at the range with their friends recreationally ... it's a good bonding exercise."

An Army and Air Force Exchange spokesperson did not say specifically whether the gun sale policy is specifically being reviewed, but said "all merchandise categories" are "continually" reviewed. The Marines said the recommendations are under review, and the Corps will implement any adopted by the Pentagon.

A spokesperson for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the department implemented the recommendations that could be enacted immediately. They included the hiring of more behavioral health professionals and incorporating more mental health conditions into primary medical care.

Austin's office said a new working group is reviewing the rest.

The committee's report noted that previous committee reports made similar or identical recommendations, but the Department of Defense did not act upon them.

"One conclusion ... is that persistently elevated suicide rates in the DoD result in no small part to the DoD's limited responsiveness to multiple recommendations that have been repeatedly raised by independent reviewers and its own experts," the report says.

Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, Austin's spokesperson, said in an email the working group was directed to give "full consideration" to every recommendation.

"This working group will assess all remaining recommendations to determine the feasibility and advisability of implementing the recommendation as proposed, whether policy changes are required, implementation timeline, synchronization with existing prevention efforts, and required cost and manpower," Schwegman said. "Taking care of our military community is a top priority."

Mort said the changes can't come soon enough.

"I'm hoping that enough people make noise," she said. "I want to see changes because I don't want any other mom to go through what I'm going through."

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 988.

CrisisText Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

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Andrew Dyer