ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Suicide is rising in America, and for the first time, veterans have a higher rate of suicide than the population at large. The cause of the increase is difficult to study, but there is consensus about what would reduce those deaths, especially among veterans. Limit access to their guns. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Jason Stavely spent a recent Saturday along with dozens of others walking 22 miles along the highway near Saginaw, Mich., and planting flags. Each flag had the name of a veteran who died by suicide. He posted videos on Facebook.
JASON STAVELY: All right, we just completed 11 miles - 12 - so this is mile 13 in honor of...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ranada Rock (ph).
STAVELY: ...Ranada Rock. Go ahead. Put it on.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is for you, Ranada.
STAVELY: So this 13th mile's for you, girl.
LAWRENCE: Stavely is an Iraq vet. I spoke to him by phone. He said the whole walk was in honor of his Marine Corps buddy Thomas Felton who died last October.
STAVELY: Went there on Sunday to stop by and say hi. We talked for a while. I'm like, hey, I've got to get going. He's like, yeah, sure. Friday, we should go out and do some range therapy. I'm like, hell yeah. So you know, we hugged. You know, it's my brother. And then I got a phone call from his wife the next day saying that he shot himself.
LAWRENCE: When Felton died in October, Jason Stavely was already having a rough time himself. That month always brings up bad memories from Iraq. Stavely's VA therapist suggested he get his guns out of the house.
STAVELY: I called up my buddy. I'm like, hey, can you hold onto them for a bit? He says, oh, yeah, no problem. I just called him up a couple of weeks ago. I said, hey, I'm feeling pretty good. I'm going to go to the range. Is it all right if I get them back? He goes, dude, you went to your counseling. You went through everything. You're feeling better now. I can tell by your mood. Yeah, yeah, come on and get them.
LAWRENCE: Stavely loves target shooting and hunting, but he also realizes that suicide can be an impulsive act, and a gun can make it too easy.
STAVELY: Come towards September, October, if I get the feeling, I'm more than happy to give him - my guns back to my buddy again.
LAWRENCE: Firearms are the deadliest method of suicide. Pills, for example, don't kill nearly as often. And by definition, veterans know how to use guns.
ELIZABETH ESTY: Veterans are much more likely to commit suicide with a gun than civilians in the population, so that access matters.
LAWRENCE: Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat, is on one side of a debate about gun rights and veteran suicide. Right now VA policy is to report vets who are declared mentally incompetent to the FBI's background check system so they can't buy guns. Esty is fighting against a bill that would change that.
ESTY: And that is dangerous when you look at the fact that you've got tens of thousands of veterans who have been reported because they've been diagnosed with ailments such as schizophrenia or PTSD or dementia or Alzheimer's or serious depression.
LAWRENCE: Republican Phil Roe sponsored the bill to stop VA from reporting names automatically and require a legal order. He says veterans are losing their rights with no due process.
PHIL ROE: VA does not determine that the veteran is actually dangerous before sending the veteran's name to the FBI.
LAWRENCE: Roe chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He said at a hearing that preventing suicide is also his top priority.
ROE: As a doctor, I am concerned that veterans may choose not to access the benefits they've earned, including access to health care for conditions related to the military service because they do not want to risk being branded as incompetent.
LAWRENCE: And there are some vets who feel that way. Todd Kuikka did multiple combat deployments as an EOD, defusing bombs. He had a rough time when he came home to Minnesota.
TODD KUIKKA: At right around the same time I was fighting to get the care that I so desperately wanted through the VA and then finding out that, hey, by the way, your Second Amendment rights have been stripped and you've got to give up your weapons.
LAWRENCE: That's not the best way to rebuild the shaky trust between veterans and the VA, says Kuikka. Still, he does think it's a good idea sometimes to put guns out of easy reach. In fact, that's what he did.
KUIKKA: I myself gave up my weapons to my wife. And we had a safe in the house that only she had the keys for. This wasn't just all of a sudden the government stepping in and saying, hey, buddy, (laughter) cough up all your firearms because you're no longer trusted.
LAWRENCE: The VA has a few pilot programs to reduce access to lethal means, things like offering vets trigger locks. The bill to change the way the VA reports mentally incompetent veterans to the FBI's background database passed the House and is going through the Senate. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY FLYNN SONG "WROTE AND THE WRIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.