More than half of military veterans with access to firearms store them unsafely, and nearly 40 percent store their guns loaded, according to a new study published this month.

Led by researchers at Yale University, the study consisted of data from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study, a national sample of 2,441 veterans. It found that half of former military service members owned at least one personal firearm. The findings also showed a link between a history of exposure to direct trauma, like physical assault, and an increased likelihood of unsafe storage practices.

“These high rates underscore the importance of nationwide training initiatives to promote safe firearm storage for all service members and veterans, regardless of risk status,” the authors concluded. 

In 2021, suicide was the 13th leading cause of death for veterans. For years, veterans and their families have spoken about the failures of mental health access and there has been a call for more evidence-based strategies to address the crisis. At the same time, nationwide efforts encouraging Americans to safely secure their firearms have routinely fallen short in the face of gun industry messaging campaigns — which incentivize gun ownership by playing to popular fears — deepening a lack of public awareness of the relationship between firearm access and injury or death. 

Suicide is a particularly high risk. While there have been some increases in proposals like veteran-led training for mental health practitioners, and interactive programs that engage former members of the military with people who have similar experiences, understanding the challenges facing the more than 18 million veterans nationwide is complex. 

This kind of research is “useful in turning awareness into action, which helps remove some of the stigma and barriers that still exist,” said Glori Fernandez, the program director for Objective Zero, an app that provides the military community with mental health services and peer support. “One of the most important things that our service members need to know is the importance of limiting access to lethal means in a moment of crisis.”

Between 2001 and 2021, firearm usage in veteran suicide deaths increased by 58 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ most recent annual suicide prevention report. Firearms were used in 72 percent of suicide deaths among veterans that year and former military members accounted for about 14 percent of the 46,412 suicides reported nationwide. The report also highlighted differences between men and women; the firearm suicide rate increased by 62 percent for men in the 20-year period, while the rate for women increased by 158 percent. Former Marines are at the highest risk of suicide of all veterans.

The Yale researchers analyzed sociodemographic factors like age, race, region, and past suicide attempts to identify how specific factors could influence suicide risk. Unsafe storage practices were higher among older veterans, and those who had no children at home or had higher incidents of direct trauma exposure. 

Among those who reported safe firearm storage efforts, habits that were somewhat safe, like storing a loaded gun in a secure location, were most commonly associated with Black veterans and veterans based in the South. Veterans who were more likely to secure their firearms safely were either married or partnered, or lived in the Northeast, where there’s a greater political and medical emphasis on safe storage.

The results from this analysis capture one of the main areas where many advocates have called for improvement: research.