If I Talk to a Psychologist, Will They Take Away My Gun?

The cheerful young man in Chicago’s O’Hare airport wore a cowboy hat and was dressed in long, baggy denim shorts despite the chilly November evening. His chin was flecked with blond stubble, tattoos covered both forearms, and a plug sagged in his earlobe. He looked to be in his early twenties. While we waited for our flight to Seattle, we chatted. Or mostly, I listened.

He had grown up going back and forth between Arizona and Mississippi (parents were divorced). He was coming from visiting his grandmother in Chicago (in her 90s and still driving), and was going back to the Northwest, where he and his girlfriend looked after his uncle (83 years old but not yet ready to be in a home). And he had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The young vet noticed my government ID, and asked what I did. I told him I worked for an organization that made mobile apps and websites for service members and veterans to help with anxiety, depression, TBI, that sort of thing.

He nodded.

“I’m doing better. Hey, my buddy says I’m doing better than he did after he came back. I wear my earplugs and play my music on New Year’s Day and the 4th of July,” he said, referring to when the sound of fireworks triggered old memories. “People are dumb sometimes, they forget.”

“If I have my gun, I’m ok. If I don’t have my gun, I’m not,” he said. “And I put my gun in my trunk, or I give it to my girlfriend—she’s got a permit.” I realized he was saying that he was responsible, he was careful not to be careless with his gun.

I asked if he kept in touch with guys from his former unit.

“Oh, yeah, I talk to my buddies. Hey, I talk to anybody.”

I believed it, from his easy conversation with me. Then the conversation took an interesting turn.

“I just won’t talk to a psychologist, because it’ll go on my record and they’ll take away my gun.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. Was that true? I knew that talking to a doctor wasn’t in itself a reason to affect a service member’s security clearance, but I didn’t know about firearms.

Once we boarded our plane, we separated; I settled into my middle seat towards the front, while he headed toward the back of the plane for his aisle seat. When the plane landed, I waited for him to emerge from the gate. I gave him an airline cocktail napkin on which I had scrawled the names of our AfterDeployment website and some mobile apps that he might find useful. I tried to think of something helpful to say that didn’t sound stupid.

“Talk to people if you need to. Everybody’s different—depends on what you saw, what you did—or didn’t do,” I said. He nodded, and we parted.

In the next few weeks, I asked around at work. I found out that yes, if someone talked to a psychologist and it was determined that the person was an immediate risk to themselves or others, their gun could possibly be taken away. But I also learned that if the person talked to a chaplain, that conversation would be completely confidential.

“That’s what we hope people realize is one of the benefits of talking to one of us,” said Chaplain George Wallace, senior chaplain clinician and the deputy chief of the Department of Ministry and Pastoral Care at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington.

“We will not betray a confidence—even if we get a court order,” Wallace said. He thought the young vet was smart to keep his gun in the trunk of his car or to give it to his girlfriend, to lessen the chance of it being used reactively. Later, when I looked up the website for his department, I noticed they had a chaplain on call 24 hours a day.

I hoped the young vet would keep doing better. He had his buddies, he had his girlfriend and his mother, who were both picking him up at the airport, and he had a purpose, taking care of his uncle. If he ever needed to talk about psychological health, even if he didn’t want to talk to a psychologist or his primary care doctor, I hoped that he’d figure out that he could talk to a chaplain, or call a hotline. In fact, he had even mentioned during our conversation how he would consider counseling.

“Oh, actually, I’d be willing to talk to a psychologist,” the young man admitted. Then he laughed. “Except I wouldn’t tell him my real name. I’d say, “Hi, I’m uh…Larry!”

Cathy McDonald is the Staff Writer for the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Ms. Cathy McDonald