By Tamara Mathias

(Reuters Health) – A substantial percentage of U.S. military vets store guns loaded and ready to use, according to an American study that could have implications for suicide prevention.

“American veterans have a higher suicide risk than demographically matched U.S. adults and most of their suicides are actually related to firearm injury,” said lead author Dr. Joseph Simonetti of the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Colorado.

“On average, about 20 veterans die every day by suicide and about two-thirds of those suicides are firearm-related,” he told Reuters Health.

Simonetti and colleagues surveyed a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults in 2015, including 1,044 who had served in the military.

About 45 percent of veterans said they owned firearms – and one in three of those gun owners reported storing at least one weapon loaded and unlocked.

Only about one in five gun-owning veterans kept all their guns locked and unloaded.

Storing weapons loaded and unlocked was reported by 34 percent of male veterans who own firearms and by 13 percent of female vets who were gun owners, according to the study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Respondents’ personal beliefs tended to influence their storage decisions, the authors found. For example, storing a firearm loaded and unlocked was more common among people who said guns were not useful for protection if someone had to take the time to load or unlock them. This group also felt having a gun at home increased safety.

“One of the more interesting findings was that we asked veterans whether or not they agreed having a firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide for household members and only 6 percent agreed that a firearm in the home was a suicide risk factor,” Simonetti said.

“But … we also asked veteran firearm owners … ‘If somebody in your household is at risk for suicide, what would you do?’ Eighty-two percent reported they would do something to limit firearm access for that household member. In fact, 25 percent said they would remove the gun from the home in that case.”

The results “are confirming what I suspected would be the case,” said Rajeev Ramchand, who studies firearm suicide prevention at research firm RAND Corporation in Washington, DC. “It is now incumbent upon us to develop communication campaigns and strategies to help shift people’s internal perceptions of risks.”

“It’s a really great study because it really gives us a target for focusing on our suicide prevention campaigns,” Ramchand, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters Health.

The study was funded in part by the department of Veterans Affairs. VA efforts to prevent suicide among former service members include training health care providers to discuss firearm safety and distributing firearm “cable locks,” which can be attached to a gun to block its barrel or the use of ammunition.

Gun control of any sort is a contentious topic in the U.S. But Simonetti believes both sides of the debate are likely to support safe storage practices.

“Nearly every gun advocacy organization out there including the NRA actually does promote the idea that guns should be stored safely when not in use,” he said. “I (just) don’t think most organizations have outlined exactly what that means.”

Ramchand is optimistic. “For so long we had a dearth of information about firearm storage. So this was a really great study to help us come up with data-driven policies and recommendations,” he said.

SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, online August 27, 2018.