While the gun debate has been raging in Washington ever since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in mid-December, the one thing that has been conspicuously absent from the conversation is veterans’ accessibility to guns. No one inside the Beltway appeared willing to broach the topic and risk offending America's 22 million former servicemen and women.
But that all changed on Thursday when, during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on gun control, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) rejected an amendment to her assault-weapons ban that would exempt veterans proposed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Feinstein explained: “The problem with expanding this is that, you know, with the advent of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), which I think is a new phenomenon as a product of the Iraq War, it’s not clear how the seller or transferer of a firearm covered by this bill would verify that an individual was a member, or a veteran, and that there was no impairment of that individual with respect to having a weapon like this. I think you have to—if you’re going to do this, find a way that veterans who are incapacitated for one reason or another mentally, don’t have access to this kind of weapon."
Not surprisingly, these comments have ignited a firestorm of angry responses that have spread across social media and the conservative and pro-gun blogosphere.
On the Constitutional Conservatives website, one post said Feinstein "needs to go to prison over this matter—treason! This woman is despicable … They're just using PTSD and/or mental illness as an excuse to deny veterans their God-given Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.”
On the Second Amendment Check page on Facebook, one woman said Feinstein "needs to be carried out of the Senate in a strait jacket and real soon, the stupid old senile worthless idiot!"
Feinstein, a staunch advocate of gun control who at one time carried a concealed weapon herself, is the first national pol to raise the issue. Some are questioning the political wisdom of her position, given the fact that nearly 2 million veterans reside in her state.
And it certainly doesn’t help her cause that her remarks reveal a fundamental and troubling misunderstanding of PTSD, which is by no means a "new phenomenon” or “a product of the Iraq War." PTSD is a relatively recent clinical designation that in the case of veterans refers to the psychological impacts of combat, which have been around for as long as mankind has waged war. In the past it's been called everything from shell shock to battle fatigue.
Still, were Feinstein's comments really that offensive, outrageous.], and irresponsible? Or were they legitimate questions about veterans’ access to guns?
Dr. Andrea Macari, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk County Community College in New York, who specializes in PTSD and suicide, says the biggest issue with veterans and PTSD is they get the treatment they need and deserve.
“I don’t want to stigmatize mental illness or our brave veterans, but the reality is that after they come back from war, they often do not get the proper treatment and follow-up for their PTSD, and as a consequence they can suffer badly with paranoia, flashbacks, morbid depression, and substance abuse,” says Macari. “The potential for the misuse of weapons is there.”
Macari says Feinstein’s comments “may not have been politically smart, but they were smart in terms of public health. PTSD patients, veteran or not, generally are not homicidal. The bigger problem is suicide. The media focus in the gun debate is on homicides, but suicides are more common than homicides, and guns obviously play a major role in this.”
Veterans are in fact killing themselves, most often with guns, at an epidemic rate: 22 times a day in 2010, according to a recently released study from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While that number includes many much older veterans, about one in three of the veterans who've fought in our post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, which is described by the Department of Defense as “an anxiety disorder caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event."
Still, were Feinstein’s comments really that offensive, outrageous and irresponsible? Or were they legitimate questions about veterans’ access to guns?
Mental health experts differ on whether those who suffer PTSD pose a greater threat to themselves or others. But several studies conclude that there is not a strong link between PTSD and gun violence.
“To pick PTSD and highlight it in the way it’s been played out in the media is a gross distortion and contrary to what we know,” Matthew Friedman, director of the VA’s national center, told The Washington Post last year.
However, studies also suggest that veterans with PTSD are two to three times more likely to physically abuse their wives and girlfriends than those who have not been diagnosed, and three times as likely to get into a physical fight when they attend college.
These events could also be prompted by a variety of other stress-related factors, including unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, and the increasingly long wait times many veterans now face when seeking their disability and pension claims.
Retired Lt. Col John Cook, a combat veteran who spent five years in Afghanistan overseeing the training of the Afghan National Police, says he is "certainly no liberal," but he shares Feinstein's concerns about veterans and gun ownership and thinks people are overreacting to what she said.
“She (Feinstein) may have been guilty of poor choice of words, but I didn't find anything she said all that outrageous,” he says. “The truth is, PTSD is very real. Our veterans have a much higher suicide rate than the general public. I see no debate here. The suicide rate among active-duty members is also at an all-time high, and they kill themselves with issued weapons. While this puts me in the somewhat uncomfortable position of actually agreeing with Senator Feinstein, I really have no issue with the thrust of what she was saying, as I understand it.”
Cook says veterans should have “no special status when it comes to owning guns than any other citizen. Anyone with an impaired mental or emotional condition should not own a gun.”
Currently, the VA appoints fiduciaries to manage disability benefits of veterans who are declared "incompetent." When that happens, the VA automatically enters that veteran's name in the background-check system.
But hundreds of thousands of veterans with PTSD who have not been declared "incompetent" are still allowed to buy and own a gun, even if their PTSD is identified as severe.
This issue briefly surfaced in the Senate in December when Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) wanted veterans who've been deemed “mentally incompetent” to have their cases adjudicated by a judge rather than by the VA. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) objected.
For the most part, up until Feinstein made her comments on Thursday, the only discussion taking place about veterans and guns were on chat sites (Reddit) and several conservative sites and blogs (The New American, Red Flag News, Infowars).
The conservative blogosphere has for the past several weeks been stirring up fears among veterans by suggesting that a letter being sent out by the VA is telling veterans that they are prohibited from owning or purchasing guns.
Michael Connelly, a constitutional attorney, wrote on Red Flag News, "The men and women who have laid their lives on the line to defend us and our Constitution are now having their own Constitutional rights denied.”
But one conservative blogger dismissed Connelly’s diatribe. In a recent post entitled, “Don’t believe the hype on the VA letter summarily denying vets gun rights,” Bob Owen called Connelly’s comments "misleading at best, and purposeful fear-mongering at worst. This (VA) provision doesn't apply to someone just because they went into combat, or if they have some level of PTSD, or if they have a head injury. This generally applies to folks that are seriously mentally compromised."
Perhaps the most ironic element in the current gun debate is that while so many of the opponents of Feinstein's weapons ban insist the mental-health issue is not being adequately addressed, apparently no one other than Feinstein is ready to include veterans in that mental-health discussion.
In defense of his amendment to exempt veterans from the assault-weapons ban, Cornyn said, “Unfortunately this legislation focuses not on the perilous intersection of mental illness and guns, but on cosmetic features of certain firearms.”
Meantime, Macari says the most important thing to take away from the debate that Feinstein initiated is that society needs to take better care of veterans. “As a country, we must help our veterans heal from PTSD,” she says. “We have very effective treatments. We need to do whatever we can to help these men and women.”