A group of senior retired generals and admirals are calling for Congress to amend a recent law that they say "dangerously interferes" with the ability of commanders to battle the epidemic of suicides among members of the military.
Legislation added to the 2011 defense authorization bill at the urging of gun-rights advocates prohibits commanders from collecting any information about weapons privately owned by troops.
Critics say the law prevents commanders from being able to talk to service members about their privately owned weapons — such as encouraging the use of a gunlock or temporary storage away from their homes — even in cases when the commanding officer thinks the service member is at risk for suicide.
"The law is directly prohibiting conversations that are needed to save lives," states a letter sent last week to members of Congress by a dozen retired officers, including former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer and former surgeons general for the Army, Air Force and Navy.
"It unnecessarily hampers a commander from taking all possible practical steps for preventing suicide," one of the signers, Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, said Saturday. Dubik commanded the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
Suicides in the active-duty force are occurring across the services this year at the rate of more than one a day. As of the end of October, the number of suspected suicides by active-duty soldiers in the Army alone had reached 166, one more than the total for last year.
Forty-eight percent of military suicides in 2010 involved privately owned weapons, according to Defense Department statistics. In many instances, the suicides are impulsive acts in which easy availability of a weapon played a key role, several officers who signed the letter said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is trying to add language amending the law to the Senate version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act bill, which is expected to be finalized Monday.
"We're very hopeful it will be included," said John Madigan, senior director of public policy for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a group that has advocated the change.
Similar language to change the law has been included in the House version of the bill that has already passed. The language authorizes military mental health professionals and commanding officers to ask service members whether they have or plan to acquire firearms, ammunition or other weapons when the officials have "reasonable grounds" to believe that a service member is at high risk for suicide or causing harm to others.
Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who sponsored the 2011 restriction, said in a statement that the law "in no way prevents a commander from taking necessary steps to mitigate a suicidal or dangerous situation, to include asking a service member if they have weapons in their private residence and asking that the service member allow those weapons to be temporarily held by the commander."
Nonetheless, Inhofe said he had no objections to amending the language. "Although I have not been contacted by any commander who felt this was not already authorized, I support including this language in the final NDAA if it clears up any confusion," he said.
Inhofe said his 2011 amendment, which was supported by the National Rifle Association, protects the constitutional rights of military members and their families "by prohibiting the Department of Defense from requiring further registration of privately owned weapons beyond what is already required by state and federal law."
After the law was signed, the Defense Department issued guidance indicating that conversations about firearms can still take place in some circumstances.
But in their letter last week, the retired senior officers said "military commanders deserve clear authority to take the appropriate action to protect their warfighters without any fear of violating the law."
Advocates for changing the law said they did not know of any specific cases involving suicide or attempted suicide in which the law prevented a commander from intervening. But they said concern about the restrictions is nonetheless high.
"I hear all the time that commanders and clinicians feel their hands are tied," said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a former senior Army psychiatrist who signed the letter.
"When this thing came up, it contradicted everything we'd been doing," he added. "It was so contradictory to the intent of the suicide prevention."
Kerry noted that as of June, suicides among the active duty force were up 18 percent over the same period the year before.
"That's a frightening figure but it damn well better be a wake-up call," Kerry said in an e-mailed comment Friday.
"Commanding officers in our armed forces can make a difference, and they are committed to saving lives," he said. Given the numbers of military suicides committed with personal firearms, he added, "we know this can make a difference."