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By Kyleanne Hunter, retired Marine

Once again, my heart is broken. It breaks for the 12 people shot and killed at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks. But it also breaks for my fellow veterans across the country, so many of whom carry their burdens of war inside of them and are pained to learn about another one of our fellow service members, someone who had vowed to protect their country, turning to an act of such hatred and evil.

In the military, we are trained to look out for one another. We’re trained to be our brother and sister’s keeper. And we’re also trained to be stewards of guns, understanding the life and death power that they hold. As veterans, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to continue our service and be the leaders on this issue.

In the military, we are trained to look out for one another. We’re trained to be our brother and sister’s keeper. And we’re also trained to be stewards of guns.

In today’s society, veterans often carry a privileged position; we are seen as leaders due to our decision to raise our hands and offer to give our lives to defend America’s ideals. But it is also our duty to continue to serve by having honest conversations about guns. We have to talk, both to each other and to the public at large, about the effect of guns in the hands of those who are in crisis and become a danger to themselves or others. Access to guns by such individuals ends in death and heartbreak far too often, and if we don’t start having the hard conversations now, it will continue to be so. We’ve lost friends to gun violence in war, and to gun suicide at home. To honor them is to stand up and lead the gun violence prevention conversation.

Many veterans, myself included, come home from war with our experiences hanging over us. Fortunately, access to mental health care is becoming destigmatized in the veteran community, but millions of veterans are still not receiving the care they need. Without proper care, we often experience moments of crisis where we consider harming ourselves or others as the best way to act on the pain brought about by the wounds of war.

Marlie Dodger looks at a makeshift memorial for the mass shooting victims from the Borderline Bar and Grill as she and her mother and sister paid their respects in Thousand Oaks, California on Nov. 13, 2018.Mike Nelson / EPA

When someone in crisis has access to a gun, these feelings become lethal. A gun can turn temporary feelings into permanent tragedies. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We need to normalize conversations about access to guns in parallel to mental health treatments, and it needs to start with veterans.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has called for the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act (ERPO) and Gun Violence Restraining Order Act (GVRO) to be passed by Congress, just as many states, including California, have done. These laws work through the legal system to allow friends and family who are concerned that a loved one is a risk to themselves or others to take action and, through due process, have their guns temporarily removed by law enforcement. Too many people interpret them as the government coming in to take their guns, like it’s some sort of punishment. But these are not punishments at all — they’re meant to save lives. When the crisis ends, the guns can be returned, and a permanent tragedy has been averted.

It’s becoming painfully clear that in the case of the Thousand Oaks shooting, a properly employed ERPO would have made all the difference in the world.

It’s becoming painfully clear that in the case of the Thousand Oaks shooting, a properly employed ERPO would have made all the difference in the world. The shooter was clearly troubled and had a history of mental health issues. Neighbors have reported that his mother repeatedly noted that she was troubled by him and by his words and actions. What we don’t know was why no one took action to ensure that he did not have access to guns while in crisis. Was there some sort of stigma preventing his family from speaking to law enforcement? California has some of the strongest gun policies in the nation, including a robust GVRO law, but those mean nothing if they are not utilized properly. We need to be able to recognize when our fellow veterans are in crisis so we can help them, rather than let them fall deeper into the darkness.

These are preventable tragedies. Twelve people did not have to die in Thousand Oaks; 26 people did not have to die in Sutherland Springs; 13 people did not have to die at Fort Hood. We lose about 20 veterans a day to suicide, according to Dr. Joseph Simonetti of the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Colorado — two-thirds by gun suicide. We need to be there before the shooting takes place, and before a troubled soul turns a gun on themselves or others. Let us not hear about another one of our brothers and sisters that we failed to help after they put their lives on the line for us and our country. As a Marine, I was trained to run towards the sound of gunfire to protect American values, and now it is my duty to stop gunfire from claiming more innocent lives.