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Letter: Allow questions about gun ownership

Dec. 12, 2012 - 01:10PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 12, 2012 - 01:10PM  |  
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Thirty-six lawmakers are pressing the House and Senate Armed Services committees on legislation that would let military commanders and physicians ask troops whether they own guns and if they are safely stored.

The letter, signed by 35 Democrats and one Republican Rep. Peter King of New York was sent to committee leaders Monday. In it, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., requested that the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill include an amendment already passed by the House permitting inquiries about gun ownership.

The provision would clarify a 2011 law that restricted commanders from "collecting or recording any information" on gun or weapons acquisition and ownership by troops who live off base. Military personnel have taken the law to mean they are forbidden from asking about firearms unless troops specifically convey intent to harm themselves and others.

"It has created confusion within the department. … We know the intention of this language was not to limit suicide prevention; unfortunately, recent studies and testimony from military commanders say this confusion could do just that," Kerry and Johnson wrote.

The new language, the legislators say, could "help prevent tragic cases of suicide among members of the military."

"This is not an attempt to limit gun rights or an individual's ability to own a firearm," Johnson said. "Prohibiting commanders and mental health professionals from helping soldiers defies common sense and dangerously interferes with our obligation to ensure the health, welfare, morale and well-being of the troops."

The Army and Navy have experienced">a record number of suicides this year since the services began closely tracking them in 2001. At least 168 soldiers have died by suicide this year; the Navy has lost 56 sailors. The Marine Corps has suffered 46 suicides and the Air Force, 56.

In 2010, 48 percent of the 295 suicides were committed with a privately-owned firearm. In 2009, 41 percent of the 309 troops who killed themselves used a firearm not issued by the military.

The amendment would allow commanders to encourage troops to store their weapons on base or at least use gun locks or safes for storage at home.

"This sensible approach does not attempt to limit an individual's Second Amendment rights," the lawmakers wrote.

The House and Senate are deliberating the final version of the 2013 defense authorization bill this week. The House is expected to release a list of its negotiators later today.

A final vote is expected next week.

Congressional editor from reader">Rick Maze contributed to this report.

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