The Air Force is gearing up to distribute 150,000 firearm cable-style locks to airmen around the U.S. free of charge as part of a home safety initiative across the force.
Sharing the locks with airmen contributes to several objectives: reducing unintentional accidents and curtailing the number of negligent and accidental discharges, according to Brig. Gen. Claude Tudor, Air Force Integrated Resilience director. Furthermore, they are also part of a time-based prevention strategy the Air Force is developing to mitigate suicides, he said.
“It’s another way to cut down on the accidental discharges, the negligent discharges, but it’s also part of a larger comprehensive plan to also help us with some of the suicide prevention efforts as well,” Tudor told Air Force Times.
The initiative has been in the works for several months as the Air Force Integrated Resilience team aims to understand the “why” behind some of the challenges they witness. But Tudor said it has become even more timely during the COVID-19 pandemic as more airmen and their families spend increased time at home to practice social distancing.
The distribution of the cable locks, designed to be used for personal firearms at home, is coupled with an educational component to foster proper use and storage of the weapons. Airmen can receive the locks through their installation’s violence prevention integrators on a first-come, first-served basis as the Air Force distributes them through the end of May.
“We’re working with our violence prevention integrators at the major commands to help them understand exactly...the proper usage of them,” Tudor said. “And then allow them to go through the distribution, working with each individual base or wing within their major commands to get them to the forces that need it the most, rather than us at the Pentagon trying to prescribe how they’re handed out.”
Because the cable locks impair an individual’s ability to pull a trigger on a firearm for at least several minutes, Tudor said the locks support the time-based prevention strategy by allowing others to intervene and ultimately stop a tragedy like a suicide from occurring. Additionally, the lock interrupts a distressed individual’s train of thought and provides him or her time to think and reassess decisions concerning self-harm.
Last year, the Air Force saw a nearly 33 percent increase in suicides in comparison to those reported in 2018 — marking the highest number of suicides since 2008. The service reported a total of 137 deaths by suicide last year, an increase from the 103 reported in 2018.
Numbers of suicides among the Air Force for the first quarter of 2020 were down slightly in comparison to the first quarter of 2019, according to the service. As of March 31, a total of 31 Air Force personnel died by suicide, a decrease from the 41 suicides the Air Force reported across the entire force the end of March last year.
Furthermore, the service warned improperly stored weapons — or prescription medications — could also lead to unintentional accidents.
“It’s important we each take a look around our homes and identify chemicals and equipment that could pose a risk of injury to ourselves and our family members,” Michael Ballard, Air Force Occupational Safety chief, said in an Air Force news release. “As we are all spending more time at home, there is an increased risk for accidents. Take proper steps now to secure your chemicals, equipment and firearms from unintentional use."
Per data from the CDC, 167,000 people died and more than 20 million were injured due to unintentional causes or from accidents in the U.S. Specifically, accidental firearm discharges claimed the lives of 458 in 2018, and injured approximately 18,000.
Given the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tudor said that he and others on his team are encouraging Air Force leaders to offer their airmen compassion as they monitor who may be at risk.
“We are trying to help leaders across the services express empathy and compassion for the upheaval that our forces and families are currently experiencing,” Tudor said. “Do they know who is isolated? Do they who’s around toxic partners 24/7? Do they know who is under stress of disciplinary actions or investigations?”
“What we’re dealing with, it’s real life,” Tudor said. “So having those leaders that provide grace and understanding as we continue to work through this is really key.”
The Veterans and Military Crisis Line provides 24/7 confidential support for service members and family members. It can be reached at 800-273-8255, by texting 838255 or online chat.