You might not have heard of Kathleen Gilligan before now, but for several years she’s been making incredible strides in preventing suicides while protecting the right to keep and bear arms; an effort borne out of the tragic loss of her 14-year old son to suicide in 2012. Gilligan currently serves as the suicide prevention coordinator for the pro-2A group D.C. Project, and her design for an app that connects veterans and uses peer-to-peer support to forge connections and a community of like-minded individuals who will look out for each other is now getting notice, attention, and most importantly, funding from the VA.
As part of the agency’s Mission Daybreak effort to reduce veteran suicide, the VA launched a $20-million dollar challenge to find innovative ways to help veterans with their mental health. More than 1,300 applications were submitted, and on Thursday the VA announced that Gilligan’s Sentinel app is one of three second place winners and will receive a $1-million grant to launch the app and start connecting veterans.
The app itself has several components, and one of its strengths is its customization. One of the goals of the app is encouraging veterans to store their firearms safely, but its backbone is a veteran-specific community support network that allows and encourages veterans to look out for each other.
“We tie safe storage of firearms into a safety team of trusted fellow veterans, family, and friends,” Gilligan explained in an interview with Bearing Arms. “Sentinel allows real-time alerts whenever a firearm is unlocked if it’s connected to the Sentinel system. You can choose to let your buddies know you’re unlocking your firearm. That could be anything from ‘I’m unlocking it because I’m going to the range’, a break-in, or ‘I’m feeling suicidal and I want to end my life.’”
But users of the Sentinel app don’t have to use this feature if they don’t want to. Gilligan spoke to many veterans and gun owners as she and her partner were designing the app, and quickly realized that customization was key if she was going to get buy-in from the community.
As a result, the Sentinel app allows for multiple settings for veterans to pick and choose from when it comes to firearms storage. The electronic locking devices are one option, but Gilligan says that users can also simply receive an alert if any unlocked firearms are accessed when they’re not around.
“We don’t need any more laws. We know that, right? I’m a Second Amendment protector. I’m the Washington State director for the D.C. Project, which is women for gun rights. But what we all recognize is that veterans know that a firearm is going to work. If they want to end their life they know that’s going to work. So we have to say we know that vets love their firearms, we know that we should have them, we know that they can do a lot of good for us including protecting our homes. But just being willing to blow up that conversation and say “look, let’s just be real about it. Let’s talk about veteran suicide and what it means when you have a firearm in their home. And let’s let them decide, with their trusted peers, or their family, or their fellow vets, how they want to be safe. That’s really the crux of the project.”
One of the things I admire most about Gilligan’s idea is that it uses technology to create and foster human-to-human connections rather than serving as a replacement for those bonds. It’s those connections that are really at the heart of the Sentinel program, and Gilligan believes that the app will allow even veterans who don’t have family or friends to serve as a safety team to seek out and find other veterans who are willing and eager to help their brothers and sisters in arms.
As Gilligan says, these are tough conversations to have, but gun owners and Second Amendment supporters like her are playing a major role in addressing suicide without trying to ban guns or impose a one-size-fits-all storage mandate. Whether its Gilligan’s own efforts or the work of allies like Hold My Guns, which uses a network of FFLs and firearms instructors who’ve volunteered to temporarily hold on to someone’s firearms when there’s a need, and Walk the Talk America, which seeks to reduce firearm-related suicides by improving both the quality of mental health care and access to it, gun owners are demonstrating that when it comes to suicide prevention its not a binary choice between saving lives our protecting our Second Amendment rights. We can do both, and the Sentinel program designed by Gilligan is proof positive.
I really appreciate Kathleen Gilligan’s efforts, as well as carving out a few minutes to talk with me about the Sentinel program for Bearing Arms Cam & Co. We’ll be following the app’s development going forward, and I’m looking forward to our next conversation.
If you are in the US and you or a loved one have contemplated suicide, call The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a trained counselor.