Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Should Gun Restrictions Be Placed on Veterans With PTSD?

When Phillip Barker received the official report from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2008, it said he suffered from homicidal ideations of a passive-aggressive nature. It also said that he had an alcohol dependency. That he experiences anxiety, sleeplessness, hypervigilance and nervous tics as part of his post-traumatic stress disorder, diagnosed in 2007 after his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. And that he has flashbacks from his deployment to Falluja, Iraq, in 2004.
Mr. Barker also owns a pistol.
After the Newtown, Conn. massacre last December and the killing of the former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle at a Texas shooting range in February, the media, President Obama, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and even David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association, have suggested that people with mental illnesses, which could include veterans with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, be subject to stricter gun restrictions. Many states already have laws saying that people who have mental illnesses or have been committed to mental institutions cannot purchase or own firearms.
But the issue is deeply contentious for many reasons, and not just because it involves gun control and the civil rights of veterans. For mental health professionals and veterans organizations, it also raises questions about the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder and its relationship to violent behavior.
Dr. Eric Elbogen, a clinical psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Durham, N.C., declined to comment on Mr. Barker’s case. But he said that although PTSD is a mental disorder, decisions on whether to restrict the gun rights of people who have received a diagnosis of PTSD should be individualized. The reason, he said, is that not all people with the disorder are violent.
“PTSD is different from one person to the next and involves many different types of symptoms,” said Dr. Elbogen, a professor of forensic psychiatry with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has been studying PTSD for 20 years. “In our research, we found that veterans with PTSD and high irritability were twice as likely to report getting arrested compared to other veterans, whereas veterans with PTSD and low irritability were not at increased odds of getting arrested. So, to generalize that all veterans with PTSD are prone to criminal acts or violence is inaccurate.”
He also noted that incidents like Mr. Kyle’s killing happen in the civilian population, too. “These are tragedies for which we are limited in our ability to accurately predict, in veteran or civilian populations,” he said. “We do not have a crystal ball.”
Bessel van der Kolk, the medical director of the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Boston and a psychology professor at Boston University Medical School, takes a somewhat different view.
Dr. van der Kolk said violence and combat-related PTSD were often linked because veterans have been trained to kill. That training is not easily turned off, he said, because “It brews inside of people and you feel like the world is a dangerous place.”
Dr. van der Kolk, who is the president of the International Society for Stress Studies, said that people with PTSD often cannot control their actions and that the disorder is often linked to anger, fear or rage, which can lead to violent or aggressive behavior.
“It is very likely that we will see more incidents like Kyle’s murder in the future simply because of the nature of PTSD,” Dr. van der Kolk said.
But he also acknowledged that not all people with the disorder had homicidal or suicidal inclinations. And like Dr. Elbogen, he believes that placing blanket gun restrictions on people with PTSD would be unfair because not all of them would be dangerous.
“It would be insulting and demeaning,” he said. “To take away someone with PTSD’s right to own a gun just because of a diagnosis is just wrong. There needs to be a more concrete reason.”
Mr. Barker agrees. Referring to his disorder, he said: “It sounds very menacing. They immediately think that I’m going to kill someone, but I’m not. I’m just willing to defend myself and my loved ones. I am very stable and responsible enough to own a firearm.”
Mr. Barker said that taking away a veteran’s gun rights would be rash. “There is a negative stigma that exists about PTSD,” Mr. Barker said. “To make a sweeping generalization that veterans with PTSD should be stripped of their rights demeans those who defended that right and are attempting to maintain a normal lifestyle despite the stresses they have endured but something must be done to prevent things like this from happening in the future.”
He suggests that people of all disorders be qualified or disqualified based on their ability to function in the real world.
“If someone has destructive behaviors, there needs to be something done to protect themselves and others, and if that means taking away their weapons, so be it,” said Mr. Barker, who added that despite his diagnosis, he can keep his ideations under control.
Veterans groups share that sentiment.
“There are veterans that do these kinds of things but it’s not the majority of vets,” said Jason Hansman, the senior program manager for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Most vets are doing just fine so to clump everyone together would be insulting.”
Mr. Hansman said not allowing veterans with PTSD to own firearms would discourage them from seeking mental health care.
“If you make it automatic where troops with PTSD lose their right to bear arms, you’re going to have people who don’t seek help,” he said.

Thomas James Brennan is a military affairs reporter with The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C. Before being medically retired this past fall, he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, and is a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Follow him on Twitter at @thomasjbrennan.

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