I am writing in response to your remarks made to Senator Cornyn on March 7, 2013 during the Senate Judiciary Committee discussing assault weapons bans. I was very alarmed at some of the comments you made regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), largely due to the inaccuracy of your statements. If you are going to kill an amendment to your gun ban legislation that would exempt our veterans from owning certain firearms for personal protection based on “The advent of PTSD, which I think is a new phenomenon as a product of the Iraq War,” then I urge you to actually learn about this condition. I am the co-founder of Military with PTSD, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about PTSD, including veterans, caretakers, and civilians, such as yourself, and I would like to clarify a few points with you.
First of all, Senator Feinstein, PTSD is not a, “new phenomenon as a product of the Iraq War.” It has been called soldier’s heart in the Civil War, shell shock in WWI, battle fatigue in WWII, and only most recently, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. PTSD made its first appearance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Third Edition, which was published in 1980. The doctors who lobbied for its inclusion viewed it as a measure that would finally legitimize the pain and suffering of Vietnam War veterans. However, adding PTSD to the DSM turned out to be an action with more far-reaching effects than just that population; it opened doors for a lot of people who desperately needed help. PTSD is a psychological reaction that occurs after an extremely stressful event involving the threat of injury or death. Anyone can get PTSD at any age. This includes war veterans, police officers, firemen, and survivors of physical and sexual assault, abuse, accidents, disasters, and many other serious events. So as you can see, Senator, with all due respect, PTSD is not exclusive to either veterans in general or specifically veterans of the Iraq War.
Next you say, “It’s not clear how the seller or transfer of a firearm covered by this bill would verify that an individual was a member [of the armed forces] or veteran and there was no impairment of that individual with respect to having a weapon like this.” In October 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs released two reports: one on PTSD and another on health care access at the VA by eligible veterans. According to those reports, “Based on the latest DMDC file received on July 11, 2012, there are a total of 1,515,707 unique OEF/OIF/OND Veterans (including 5,709 Veterans who died in-theater) who, as of May 2012, have separated from active duty following a deployment. In summary, based on the electronic patient records available through June 30, 2012, a grand total of 256,820 OEF/OIF/OND Veterans were seen for potential PTSD at VHA facilities following their return from Iraq or Afghanistan.” Nearly 30 percent of the 834,463 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated at VA hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with PTSD. Senator Feinstein, your bill already has an exemption for retired law enforcement officers, but did you know nationwide, it’s estimated as many as 18 percent of police are suffering from PTSD according to a CBS News article in 2012? So I ask you: Why are 100 percent of veterans being stripped of the right to own these types of firearms because of “no way to verify that there was no impairment of that individual,” that might affect only 30 percent of that population, but you seem to have no problem allowing assault weapons to law enforcement officers, of which 18 percent may be suffering from this same “impairment,” as you say? PTSD in a veteran is the equivalent of PTSD in law enforcement officers. They all have the same symptoms.
Finally, you state, “I think we have to—if you’re going to do this, find a way that veterans who are incapacitated for one reason or another mentally, don’t have access to this kind of weapon.” This is where your lack of education about PTSD shows up the most. PTSD is a condition that is brought about by an external factor, namely a traumatic event or events that caused actual injury to the brain. This is not some defect they were born with; it is something that happened while they were protecting our country and freedoms. The media portrays these veterans as being nothing more than trained killing machines who are unable to stop themselves from committing atrocities, and they are quick to point their fingers at PTSD as the common cause. But the truth is, these cases are very extreme examples of violent behavior, many of which have other mitigating circumstances. For every one of them who winds up in the headlines, there are hundreds and thousands more veterans with no problems whatsoever as well as those who do have PTSD but are getting help for it and leading highly successful lives. It doesn’t matter how many times the experts say these things are rare; the perception is out there that these heroes have now turned into monsters. Our vets are dying at a rate of 18 per day by their own hands, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg since only 16 states are reporting, according to a CNAF.org policy brief. This translates into an average of a suicide every 80 minutes. Clearly PTSD makes our veterans far more of a danger to themselves than anyone else.
As I said above, your comments alarmed me. I have addressed point-by-point how your remarks are based on a lack of information, but what concerns me even more is the totality of your view of our veterans. Our Nation’s heroes have voluntarily put their lives on the line to defend our rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, including the Second Amendment. Many of them have sacrificed a great part of their lives now that they are dealing with PTSD, a condition far more likely to cause anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, divorce, and excessive spending than any sort of violent outburst. This is what they have sacrificed to defend our rights, and now you want to deny them theirs? This is the sort of thinking that could make it much harder for them to find the motivation to seek help. If they feel that their rights will be stripped by receiving a diagnosis of PTSD, they will do anything to avoid that stigma. Believe me, as the spouse of a veteran with PTSD, I can tell you that the condition is highly manageable when treated and can make life a living hell if left to run unchecked. I strongly urge you: Please do not make things harder on our veterans who have already given so much to our country by taking away a valuable part of their lives. The discussion we need to be having about veterans is not about how to take away their freedoms, but instead how to get them more of the help they so desperately need.
If you have any questions or would like to know more about PTSD, I am open to having a conversation with you or pointing you to some good resources on the topic. Thank you for your time and attention. I hope my letter has swayed you somewhat.
Shawn J. Gourley
Author of The War at Home: One Family’s Fight Against PTSD
Co-Founder Military with PTSD
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