Who can forget the climactic courtroom scene in a A Few Good Men, where Jack Nicholson's character, Col. Nathan Jessup, responds to a demand for the truth from a cross-examining Tom Cruise with the classic line, "You can't handle the truth"? It came immediately to mind when I read about the NRA's new crusade against the Department of Veterans Affairs for trying to protect the well-being of veterans suffering from dementia.
The Veterans Health Administration launched a public awareness campaign about gun access by dementia patients after an 83-year-old veteran pulled a pistol from his pocket in August 2000 and shot a doctor in a V.A. hospital emergency room in Salisbury, N.C. The agency later found that 40 percent of veterans with mild to moderate dementia had a gun in their homes.
In response, the VA's Office of the Medical Inspector issued an invaluable publication, "Firearms and Dementia," explaining the risks of firearms in the home. Although the focus is on the lethal mix of guns and persons suffering from dementia, the VA underscores the risk to others as well. According to the VA, "[t]he presence of firearms in households has been linked to increased risk of injury or death for everyone in or around the home, usually as an impulsive act during some disagreement," noting that "[t]his danger is increased when one of the persons in the household has dementia."
The pamphlet takes special note of the often-ignored problem of firearm suicide:
Firearms in the home can increase the possibility of completing suicide. Coping with painful life events such as the death of a loved one, physical or mental illness, social isolation and loneliness can lead to suicidal wishes. The availability of a firearm offers a highly lethal means of completing suicide. The risk for suicide is also increased in people suffering from depression which is very common in persons with dementia.
Again, although the focus is on individuals with dementia, the VA makes it clear that guns in the home increase the risk of suicide for others as well.
The VA concludes with the "simple steps that can save someone you love," in which it advises that "[t]he best way to reduce gun risks is to remove the gun from your home." If you decide to keep guns, the VA suggests that they be stored "in a sturdy locked cabinet," unloaded, with trigger guards on each of the guns, with ammunition "in a locked fireproof safe in a separate place from the guns." But it reiterates that "[t]he safest action is to get rid of the guns."
Of course, this is enough to drive the NRA around the bend. In a statement entitled "Veterans Administration Overdoses on Anti-Gun Prescription," the gun lobby decries the VA pamphlet as "what the taxpayers get when people who know nothing about firearms issues take their cues from people who lie about firearms issues..." Then, intending to inflict on the VA the unkindest cut of all, the NRA suggests "that if one of its pamphleteers isn't related to the Brady Campaign's Dennis Henigan, he or she ought to be." I would be proud to be related to the authors of the VA's publication but, to my knowledge, I am not.
The VA's public education campaign is threatening to the NRA precisely because it was not initiated by gun control advocates, but rather arises from a desire by medical professionals at the VA to take common-sense steps against entirely preventable deaths and injuries to veterans from guns kept in the home. The VA has done nothing more than give sound advice based on the best medical and public health knowledge about the risks of guns. For doing so, it now faces the wrath of the gun lobby.
This is not the first time the NRA has sought to prevent military families from knowing the truth about guns. Our armed forces face an epidemic of suicide, with a service member committing suicide every 36 hours and a veteran committing suicide every 80 minutes. Although almost 50% of military suicides are committed with privately owned guns, the gun lobby's Congressional allies have succeeded in amending the National Defense Authorization Act to restrict the freedom of base commanders to talk to service members about guns in the home. Army General Peter Chiarelli has pointed out that "suicide in most cases is a spontaneous event" and "if you can separate the individual from the weapon, you can lower the incidences of suicide." But, he complained, "I am not allowed to ask a soldier who lives off post whether that soldier has a privately owned weapon."
The NRA loves to wrap itself in the flag, but its leadership doesn't care a whit about the health and well-being of the veterans and active-duty personnel who do the real work to maintain our freedoms. The gun lobby is more than willing to sacrifice the lives of our brave soldiers if necessary to suppress the truth about the dangers of guns in the home -- not only to military personnel and their families, but to all Americans and their families.
The NRA can't handle the truth.
Dennis Henigan is Vice President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the author of Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy(Potomac Books 2009).