The common denominator in Pennsylvania’s veteran suicides? Firearms, experts say

State Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, and U.S. Rep. Mike Perry, R-14th District, hold a roundtable on veteran suicide. (Photo via Regan's office)

Experts say there’s a lot they still need to learn about the spike in suicides among Pennsylvania veterans — but one thing they do know is that firearms play a central role.

In 2016, 236 veterans died by suicide in Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The suicide rate among Pennsylvania veterans is 31.1 suicides per 100,000 people — just a hair higher than the national veteran suicide rate.

The vast majority of those suicides — as many as two-thirds, according to some experts — involved firearms.

“Pennsylvania is leading the nation in a lot of these numbers,” Major General Anthony Carrelli, adjutant general of the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said. “We gotta be willing to try some new [solutions.]”

Carrelli was one of more than two dozen veterans and advocates who participated in a roundtable discussion of veteran suicide on Monday in suburban Harrisburg.

The event, which was hosted by state Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, and *U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, is the first of a series of similar roundtables scheduled across the state this year, which Regan said will help policymakers strengthen veteran services in Pennsylvania.

Some experts on Monday said veterans need better mental health care as they prepare to re-enter civilian life. Others said that veteran support services are decentralized and hard to find, leaving many former military members in the dark.

But Keith Beebe — vice president of the Pennsylvania War Veterans Council, an advocacy organization — said Pennsylvania’s next veteran suicide could be prevented by a piece of gun-control legislation that’s currently stalled in the General Assembly.

Beebe, who chairs the Veterans Council’s legislative committee, asked Regan on Monday to consider a so-called “red flag” gun bill that’s awaiting consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Chester, would allow courts to temporarily seize firearms from someone who’s at risk of hurting himself or others. 

Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, has introduced a companion bill in the House.

‘Red flag’ bill would reduce firearm suicides in Pa., Wolf, gun-control advocates argue at Capitol rally

Gun-control advocates say the bill could protect victims of domestic violence or people at risk of suicide, a position that studies back. On Monday, Beebe called on Regan, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, to give the bill a new look.

“This is legislation … within [a] committee which you are a member of… [that would] help prevent suicides by veterans,” Beebe said.

If the bill passes through the Judiciary Committee, Beebe said, it could get another stamp of approval in the Veterans Affairs committee, which Regan chairs. 

“What if it goes to your Veterans Affairs committee? Then you’ve got the veteran’s voice in there,” Beebe told Regan. “Take a look at this particular legislation and see if we can support this. Maybe this could prevent at least one [suicide] or even more.”

Regan didn’t directly respond to Beebe’s request at the roundtable on Monday. After the event concluded, the Republican said he would have to look more closely at the bill before he could pledge his support.

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly identify U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District.

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