Removal of firearms addressed in Missouri committee hearing on veteran suicides

(The Center Square) – Assistance to prevent veterans from committing suicide was unanimously approved during a Missouri House Veterans Committee hearing that included a discussion on firearms.

Debbie Fitzgerald, a licensed professional counselor with the Missouri Suicide Prevention Network, made a presentation and answered questions for almost an hour during Tuesday’s meeting.

An exchange between Rep. Hardy Billington, R-Poplar Bluff, and the majority whip, revealed the strategy concerning firearms possessed by veterans or others experiencing a crisis potentially leading to suicide.

“I just think if someone calls in and there’s talk about removing a gun, that will spread throughout veterans telling other veterans saying, ‘I called for help but they came and got my gun,’” said Billington, a former member of the Army National Guard who said a family member committed suicide years ago. “I think that would keep people from calling in. … Taking someone’s gun away, I don’t think that’s the answer. It’s possible it could do more harm than good, but that’s just my opinion.”

Fitzgerald said between 92 and 97 out of every 100 people, including veterans, who call a crisis center don’t have firearms removed from their home.

“It’s just like if you had a child and you lock up the Tylenol,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s just asking those in the home, ‘Can we maybe put this in a lock box for a week and you check in with us every day?’ And then if things are better in a week, you can go back to life… We never just remove them. We just ask for safe storage and just during the crisis.”

More than 76% of veteran suicides were by firearms, according to information by the Missouri Department of Mental Health. During a previous hearing, Missouri Veterans Commission Executive Director Paul Kirchoff said the state’s veteran suicide rate of 45.2 per 100,000 is higher than the national rate of 33.9.

House Bill 1495 would require the Missouri Veterans Commission to collaborate with the Department of Mental Health to prevent veteran suicides. It requires the commission to review provisions in the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019. The act broadened mental health care and suicide prevention programs to evaluate and treat conditions.

The bill would require an annual report providing “recommendations and make efforts to adopt procedures, programs, treatment options, additional aid, and any other assistance deemed necessary by the Commission to assist in the efforts to prevent veteran suicide, subject to appropriation.”

Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, chairman of the Veterans Committee and sponsor of the bill, praised Fitzgerald for her presentation.

“The work you’re doing is God’s work,” Griffith said. “You have provided us with more answers to questions that I have had for five years. Today has been a good day for this committee.”

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