As veteran Jay Zimmerman notes, a service member’s firearm is “almost like another appendage.” Zimmerman understands military culture and has a love for firearms, stemming from frequent hunting trips with his grandfather while growing up in the Appalachian region. Today he’s advocating for service members and veterans to practice lethal means safety when it comes to firearms and dealing with prolonged stress or psychological health concerns. Lethal means safety–keeping highly-lethal methods of suicide out of reach or less accessible during times of particularly high stress–is an important part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent suicide.
Zimmerman served in multiple combat zones as a former Army medic and his service weapon was essential to his and his comrades’ safety. But after navigating psychological health challenges and losing a good friend and fellow soldier to suicide, he reached a crisis point. His relationship with his wife, with whom he reconnected during the heat of his crisis, drove him toward the decision to seek help. He now champions the impact that taking simple precautions has had on his life, like storing his guns safely so that he can’t make any “rash decisions” when he hits a rough patch. In a recent National Public Radio story, Zimmerman explains that he stores his guns disassembled and separately from ammunition. He’s also made a special arrangement with friends “if things get really bad” so that they can hold onto his weapons until he feels like it’s safe to reclaim them.
For service members, transitions, relationship issues and career or personal setbacks can lead to increased stress and increased suicide risk. In addition to taking the precautions Jay Zimmerman champions, both active and reserve Sailors can work with their commanding officers and health professionals to arrange safe storage of their personal firearms during high-risk periods, per NAVADMIN 263/14.
Zimmerman is now a peer counselor at a local VA medical center and has connected with a meaningful purpose. He travels to speaking engagements and conferences across the country sharing his personal story and encouraging service members and vets to practice lethal means safety when they’re not feeling like themselves. He also coaches therapists and clinical providers on how to productively discuss these precautions with patients.
Zimmerman recognizes the perceptions that may influence a service member’s decision to voluntarily store their personal firearms or practice safety at home (such as using a gun lock). He notes that many are worried that they’ll “lose the gun that [they] carry pretty much all the time” if they opt for voluntary storage. But he emphasizes that this isn’t the case and illustrates how this personal decision can be both empowering and life-saving. His decisions to seek help and protect himself have led to him living a fulfilling life supporting other veterans.
Firearms are the most commonly used means of suicide across military and civilian populations, due in large part to easy access and high-lethality. 1 Small ACT, such as securing your firearm with a gun lock or arranging for temporary safe storage, can save a life. Check out the Every Sailor, Every Day campaign’s new lethal means safety graphics and posters here. Stay tuned for additional products addressing other ways to practice lethal means safety, such as proper disposal of unused medications.