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The Department of Veterans Affairs is concerned about vets and their guns. That's in part because of the suicide rate. According to the VA, every day an estimated 22 veterans kill themselves and most use a gun to do it. So the VA is offering veterans free gun locks. The thinking is that if they lock their guns up, they might not reach for them in the middle of a difficult moment. Our story comes from Lucy Nalpathanchil of member station WNPR.
LUCY NALPATHANCHIL, BYLINE: In the lobby of the VA Hospital in Newington, Connecticut, three police officers have set up a table covered with dozens of cable gun locks and a sign that says free. There's a lot of foot traffic here. Several people walk up and take them, no questions asked.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hi there, guys.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How are you? Do you need a lock?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That will work on a shotgun.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It will?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yep. Grab one.
NALPATHANCHIL: 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. Sergeant Bart Wichowski is a firearms instructor for the VA in Connecticut. He stands over the display table, no guns, just plenty of bright yellow gun locks wrapped in plastic. He picks one up to show how easy it is to use.
BART WICHOWSKI: 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. You can't insert a magazine. You can't rack the slide. No ammo can go inside.
NALPATHANCHIL: This event is held a couple times a year. While some veterans take the locks themselves, Wichowski, a veteran himself, says sometimes mental health providers ask for one with a specific person in mind.
WICHOWSKI: At those times we've actually had conversations with the veteran themselves. I've always either said, hey, listen, you know, if you're going down the road, maybe bring the gun to somebody else.
NALPATHANCHIL: Many veterans I spoke with say it's common among them to give their 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 their first priority is getting a gun out of the home.
MAUREEN PASKO: Even on a temporary basis, that's always the goal. And the gun locks, for us, are really - if we've tried everything and we can't get someone to agree to that, then we'll go to the gun locks.
NALPATHANCHIL: In theory, this option makes sense, but to a veteran who has struggled with suicide, not so much.
MATT ANDERSON: The only way to prevent that vet from committing suicide is somebody close to him or her stopping them, either physically or removing everything.
NALPATHANCHIL: Matt Anderson is a 24-year-old former Marine living in Connecticut. He struggled with depression and considered suicide, he says, because right before deployment to Iraq he broke his back during a training exercise.
ANDERSON: When you get injured, you're called broken. You're a broken Marine. You're given this label. People will look down on you.
NALPATHANCHIL: Luckily, Anderson shared his suicidal thoughts with a friend who alerted his Marine commanders. He was immediately sent to a local hospital where he got help for depression and learned ways to manage stress. Two years later, Anderson is in college.
ANDERSON: 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. My parents would have liked the switch to be instant but I'm working on it.
NALPATHANCHIL: 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. For NPR News, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford.
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