Honest Thoughts From a Veteran about Gun Control and Mental Health

“Common sense gun laws,” a lost generation, and realistic solutions about what needs to change

Personal photo from Ramadi, Iraq (Finger ALWAYS off trigger… proper training goes a long way, folks)
“What the hell do you need that weapon for!?”

I whistled low through my teeth, feeling the tension mount as the comment lingered in the air. Each of us gathered had been desperate for anyone to point out the obvious, yet when it happened I wanted to crawl under a table, eat popcorn, and watch from afar. I thought my fellow soldier’s comment would provoke a war of words, but he doubled down and used a scorched earth tactic.

“Is it so you can look cool in your office while jerking it to PowerPoint slides while we’re the ones left to catch bullets?”

The staff officer was visibly shocked and then turned a fury red.


While the rest of us tried to suppress giggles, our First Sergeant clapped the insult lobbing platoon sergeant on the neck and hurried him away.

The whole incident began when my Army unit discovered staff officers from our command were trying to commandeer our M4 carbine rifles. They planned to leave us with older M16 models lacking optics and night vision capabilities. The reason this became a point of contention was that almost all the officers had orders to work in a cubicle inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. My team of thirty, however, was on the way to Ramadi, Iraq. At the time, Ramadi was the most violent city on Earth accounting for half of all daily attacks that happened in the country of Iraq. That same year, Ramadi would also account for half of all deaths that occurred in the United States Marine Corps (2006–2007).

In the end, we lucked out. The Brigade Commander stepped in and remained adamant that those in combat environments would receive the newer weapons.

After leaving the military, I’ve always remained surprised by the amount of people I’ve encountered who wanted to show me their AR-15’s (the civilian version of an M4 or M16). They show it off as if we suddenly have a bond because they bought a weapon I went to war with and can strip apart blind folded.

I always ask the same question when they show me:

“What made you choose the AR-15?”

With my fellow veterans, it’s an easy answer. The AR-15 is the weapon we’re most familiar with. Durable. Lightweight. Personally, it’s what I’m most comfortable hunting with (especially boar).

A few of the people I ask respond with legitimate and responsible answers. A few others are collectors. But after hearing most people’s reasons, my internal response is the same as my fellow Sergeant’s outburst because I realize they want to be like those staff officers. They wanna look cool. They wanna play military without ever enlisting. Some even have the latest tactical gear and I’m left wondering why they want all the bells and whistles that come along with being a soldier, yet want none of the responsibilities. And amazingly, part of the responsibilities that come with being a soldier have to do with gun control.

The Military Does a Better Job at Gun Control Than Anyone

One thing that has baffled me over the years is that I can go to the grocery store and buy a pack of tic-tacs and then walk across the street and buy a gun. I’m not baffled that I can buy a gun, as I believe it’s an important liberty to have, but it’s the ease and utter lack of training in which I can buy something that has no other role than to kill something.

A knife can be used for cooking and a bat for baseball. But a gun? Unless you’re collecting them for a museum, the point of a gun is to kill something.

Let me give you a breakdown of how the military has gun control right, and society has the process backwards.

When you enlist in the military, you will spend several weeks learning weapons safety and training. Before you are ever allowed to fire a weapon, you must be able to disassemble the rifle, clean it, and then reassemble the weapon. You will take tests and quizzes asking you questions pertaining to the distance and speed a bullet can travel. Once you pass your exams, you will then fire the weapon under the supervision and training of drill sergeants and weapons experts. Last, you must qualify with your weapon on targets. If you’re unable to do that, they will not allow you to graduate from basic training.

Even overseas, training and practice is vital towards safety | Personal photo

In the military, every weapon has a serial number. If that weapon gets lost or misplaced, they know “who done it” and there are serious repercussions. If you own a personal weapon, you must register it with the base you’re stationed at.

In combat or on duty, if it’s determined you’re mentally unfit to carry out your duties, your weapon is confiscated. You’ll then go through counseling until you’re deemed fit to once more carry out your duties (I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion).

Now compare that to buying a gun in the United States. No training necessary and no one determines whether you’re mentally sound.

“See! This is Why We Need Common Sense Gun Laws!” You Say.

We’re all tired of mass shootings and know something needs to change. Like you, I fear for my child’s safety at school, and there are reforms that need to take place. The current battle cry is “common sense gun laws” but when pressed, most people can’t articulate what the hell that means aside from emotionally vague sentiments.

The most common argument is to ban certain styles of weapons from the populace, or ensure greater safety measures, but you’re more likely to hear polarizing extremes as opposed to a thoughtful and well-informed debate. Let me show you an example of how most people don’t know what they’re talking about.

Pop Quiz, HotShot! (Bonus points if you get the reference)

Below is a photo of your standard AR-15 with collapsible buttstock, rail sights for optics, and thirty round magazine. Below that is a Ruger Mini 14.

An AR-15 SAINT | Springfield Armory
A Ruger Mini 14 | Ruger
  1. Can you tell me the difference between the two?
  2. Which one of these should be banned (and why) under “common sense” gun laws?

Most people will point to the AR-15 as the weapon that needs a ban. The reason being is the AR-15 is the one they associate with mass shootings. Aside from that, they know little to nothing about guns. When I ask about the Ruger Mini 14, however, people assume it’s just your standard hunting rifle. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Both weapons are semi-automatic rifles that fire .223 caliber bullets. Both have the option of collapsible buttstocks, advanced optics, and customization. In fact, here’s a Ruger Mini 14 with custom options. Yet, there is no difference in the lethality. It just looks different.

A Ruger Mini 14 Model 5846 | Ruger

So when most people say “common sense gun laws” they’re really saying “ban weapons that look scary.” Another argument is to ban semi-automatic weapons. The only problem is that you’d need to ban pistols, most rifles, and some shotguns. A semi-automatic weapon is nothing more than a weapon whose firing mechanism you don’t have to re-cock. When the bullet shell ejects it loads the next bullet into the chamber. The speed at which you can fire the weapon depends solely on how fast you can pull the trigger.

If we want to impart common sense gun laws and not let our emotions or misinformation dictate the outcome, then perhaps we should follow the same lead as the military instead:

So You Want To Buy a Gun?

  1. You’re required to go through training and orientation first. You must be able to disassemble the weapon and clean it, plus know the difference between bullet calibers and rate of fire. Afterwards you’ll be supervised by a weapons instructor and pass target practice. Then, and only then, will you be allowed to take the weapon home (Veterans and law enforcement are exempt).
  2. Your weapon will be registered with the local police and you’re responsible for it’s whereabouts (to a greater degree than what we have in place now). Parents, if your kids get ahold of your weapon and does something dumb, you’re responsible in the same way that if they’re driving your car and hit someone, there are repercussions on your end too.
  3. Required mental health/stricter criminal background checks (it’s embarrassing that I even have to state this). This is perhaps a large part of the issue no one has addressed with proper solutions. So here’s what you should know…

If We Don’t Address Mental Health We Miss A Huge Part of The Problem

In October 2016 one of my good friends killed herself. I was the last person to speak with her before she put a gun to her head and ended her life.

When I found out she committed suicide with a firearm, I was angry. She should have never been allowed to buy a weapon in the first place. I knew firsthand of her long history with mental illness, and her issues were well documented with psychiatrists. She even informed her clinician that due to a recent divorce she was struggling with suicide ideation. A few days prior to ending her life she bought a handgun. That weapon would be how she exited this life.

As someone who works inside the mental health industry, I’ll be the first to tell you this is a major issue left unaddressed. I’ve been working on a new program with a mental health expert to help men and women combat depression. Often when I speak with men and women about their depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues and ask what they think the reason behind their issues is, a common statement is “I don’t know.

However, I had a hunch that the men and women responding did know and were just avoiding a deeper or more intimate conversation. So we surveyed over 500 men and women and the results were staggering. In the survey, our respondents could choose as many answers relevant to their situation. We asked things like “Does past pain or trauma play a part in your depression? Are emotional or relational issues part of your depression?

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

75% of respondents said stress and difficult life situations were the number one reason behind their depression. Relational issues with others and not knowing how to handle their emotions also affected 60% of those who responded. Unresolved past pain and lacking purpose or direction in life accounted for more than half of all respondents. From there the answers dramatically declined and less than five percent said they “didn’t know” the reason behind their depression.

What we’re seeing is an entire generation who no longer have the skills necessary to face adversity or learn how to become resilient men and women. Bullying in schools is endemic, and it’s no longer just the kid from the traumatic home life lashing out. It’s the “mean girls” and the cool kids who are asserting dominance and slighting even their close friends because that’s what they see from social media and celebrities. More people are lonely and isolated than ever before and therefore lash out. Men, in particular, have a toxic views of masculinity — “Real men do everything on their own. Real men don’t cry. Real men express anger through violence.

I’ve heard people tell me “I got bullied and didn’t shoot anyone.” Yeah, me too. I even got stitches from a school bully. But there’s a saying in the military’s SERE school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) where you learn to experience torture as a prisoner of war.

“Everyone breaks.”

You’ve probably heard that phrase in the movies or from political hearings on torture. Once you’ve experienced bullying, isolation, or trauma long enough — you too — will snap.

As we’re seeing, because of the increase in mental health issues and people not knowing how to develop healthy coping mechanisms, people are snapping. Some are already there, and others are on their way. And if we allow people with these issues access to firearms? It’s the perfect storm.

I have friends who struggle with rampant feelings of worthlessness or are cutting themselves or deal with suicide ideation. They should never have access to a firearm until they’re healed.

The argument will then become, “that heaps more shame on me for having mental health issues, and I should have the same freedom as others.”

I don’t let my daughter play underneath the kitchen sink where the Drano is and say, “Hope this works out. I want you to have the freedoms I do.” That’s irresponsible. What’s responsible is restricting her freedoms.

So what should we do?

One solution (which won’t fix everything but is a start) is to require counselors, social workers, and psychiatrists to report men and women to a database where they’ll be restricted from owning a firearm until they are deemed emotionally healthy once more. We already do this with convicted felons, so it’s not a stretch.

Okay, But I Have Some Objections…

I still think “Assault Rifles” should be banned

I’ll make a compromise with you, but first, a clarification.

There is no such thing as an “assault rifle.” I’m assuming you think AR stands for “Assault Rifle” when it’s only a branding for “Armalite Rifle.” So you would have to determine what an assault rifle is based on caliber size and capabilities. Part of the problem is you can end up banning standard hunting rifles based on some of the capabilities an AR-15 has. The whole situation is fickle and volatile because everyone’s emotions are involved on both sides of the aisle. Just like you, I’m sick of seeing death at every corner and I fear for my child’s safety, so something has to be done, but I feel I laid out realistic changes with far reaching impact. But to compromise, I’d be okay with the following:

Let law enforcement and veterans be the only ones eligible to own the “scary weapons” (but first, the populace has to define what weapons are okay based on caliber and capability and as stated that’s more nuanced than most people care to explain. It’s easier to say “ban this particular gun” as opposed to doing research and becoming knowledgeable on the subject). The reason I suggest this is because less than 1% of the population would own a particular brand of firearm. Maybe then veterans will finally get the care and access to mental health we’ve been begging for from the VA and our fellow peers (as well as you, dear reader). It also provides a valuable service as far as checks and balances for the government/2nd Amendment enthusiasts which ties into the next objection…

Why did you suggest only Veterans and Law Enforcement get to have AR-15s? I’m a civilian and the 2nd Amendment guarantees my right!

Let me shoot you straight. The reason I suggested it is because if there was ever a revolution to overthrow a tyrannical government, you know who’d be leading it? Veterans and law enforcement. Not you and your hunting buddies. You literally hunt a dumb animal. Deers, ducks, and boar are dumb. You think you and your friends are gonna go all Walking Dead and suddenly know military tactics, flanking techniques, and urban warfare? Please.

History will back this up too. Just review every major uprising from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Who led it? Military veterans ranging from George Washington to Artemas Ward. Veterans will be the ones to ensure tyrannical governments are overthrown, not a bunch of hunters with AR-15s. Plus, like I stated earlier, I think most people want that gun to look cool and fake play being a soldier. So if you really want it, enlist and serve.

Seriously. Join up if you want it that bad. | Wikipedia

Can’t we arm our teachers?

Just…. no. That’s the worst idea ever.

Human beings were not meant to kill each other. There’s something deep inside of us that knows it’s wrong and even in war it wreaks havoc on those of us who’ve endured watching another man die. No one captured this more clearly than David Ayer in the movie Fury. In one of the most stand out moments of the movie, Shia LeBoeuf’s character meets a recruit and tells him:

“Wait’ll you see it.”
“See what?”
“What a man can do to another man.”

I want no part of that responsibility on our educators. Leave it to law enforcement.

Seriously people?

Final Thoughts

I realize this is an emotionally charged topic with men and women on opposing sides of the fence. I have tried to the best of my ability to take a middle road and propose realistic solutions. All or nothing arguments get us nowhere and divide us further and we only surround ourselves in an echo chamber of people who believe as we do. We must attempt to reach across the aisle and address the problems and propose compromise and solutions based on reality, not pipe dreams.

To those who feel guns are the sole problem and that by outlawing them all much of society’s ills would be solved: I would remind you that even if we could destroy every gun on this planet, you cannot remove a man’s capacity for violence.

To those who feel guns are the solution: The pen has always accomplished more than the sword. The sword is a result of the pen when necessary, but we should not long for violence. It should be a last resort. From the Federalist papers to Jesus to Gandhi to our own government writing laws, words can accomplish great feats. Our children are reaping the consequences of an inability to compromise out of illogical fears of “taking away our guns.” Please don’t let our children be the ones to bear our sins.

There is a middle road available. Now we must come together to find it.

For additional reading I highly recommend Brené Brown’s post, “Gun Reform: Speaking Truth to Bullshit, Practicing Civility, and Effecting Change