"In telling his story, maybe I can keep a tragedy from happening to somebody else," Tom Arnold tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
September 23, 2016 02:00 PM
Credit: Michael Schwartz/WireImage

Spencer Arnold, a 24-year-old Army veteran who came home from Iraq with chronic depression, decided on impulse last May that he’d had enough. After a phone argument with his girlfriend, he picked up one of the five loaded guns he’d recently purchased and kept on his nightstand, and shot himself in the head in his Iowa City, Iowa, apartment.

Now Spencer’s uncle, actor and comedian Tom Arnold, is speaking out about the tragedy during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, hoping to rally people to get behind tighter gun control laws and prevent those with mental illness from purchasing firearms.

“My nephew was a sweet, good-hearted kid, but he was sad and angry after the Army sent him home early with an honorary discharge because of issues revolving around a suicide attempt,” Arnold, 57, tells PEOPLE exclusively.

“Spencer wanted to be a part of something, so he got involved in the gun culture and joined a racist neo-Nazi group,” he says. “Last fall, when I saw him posting some scary stuff on Facebook, I became concerned and begged his father to take away his guns.”

When that didn’t happen, Arnold says he flew to Iowa to talk to his nephew, but he had hidden his guns and refused his offer to help treat his depression.

“My whole family was furious and felt that I’d overreacted,” Arnold tells PEOPLE. “They said he was an adult and it was none of my business – that it was Spencer’s American right to keep his guns.”

Spencer’s family did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

On May 2, after Spencer killed himself, Arnold knew he had to do something to prevent his nephew from becoming just another statistic among the country’s 20,000 annual gun suicides. He joined the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and is now pushing Congress for stricter legislation to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, violent felons, people on the terrorist watch list and military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“There should also be background checks for everybody,” says Arnold, “and people who serve our country should get follow-up physical and mental health exams for the rest of their lives. I’m a gun owner and I’m in favor of the Second Amendment. But people who are suicidal shouldn’t be able to buy a gun. It’s just common sense.”

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, welcomes Arnold’s involvement at a time when there are more than 50 gun suicides every day (20 of that number are veterans) in the United States.

“We have a national tragedy of staggering proportions,” Gross tells PEOPLE, “and we’re now at a tipping point because the American public is finally starting to realize what’s going on. Whether you love to hunt or are repulsed by the idea, you probably agree that an unsupervised child, a domestic abuser and a mentally ill person shouldn’t have a gun. And when a person makes the decision to bring a gun into their home, they’re increasing the dangers associated with it. We’re grateful to Tom for helping to start a conversation about that.”

Arnold, who grew up in rural Ottumwa, Iowa, where he frequently went hunting with his grandfather, was stunned to learn that his nephew was able to get a concealed weapon permit and buy five guns even though the Army had sent him home after a failed suicide attempt.

“How could that happen?” he tells PEOPLE. “He never should have been allowed to buy them. The thing with guns is, you don’t get a second chance. If you have a gun, you can bet your kids know where it is. And who knows what a bad day is to a teenager? With my nephew, he had a bad moment, the guns were there, so he picked one up and used it – a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Arnold says that when he asked his brother to take Spencer’s guns to a police station and have them destroyed, he insisted that he would keep the weapons and use them in his son’s memory.

Arnold’s brother did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

“He and the rest of my family are outraged at me for speaking out about this,” Arnold tells PEOPLE, “because in their minds, suicide is something that you don’t discuss publicly. Where I come from, mental illness is shameful and a choice. But if it saves even one life, I believe it’s worth it to speak up. If my nephew hadn’t had those guns, he’d have had his bad moment, then lived to see another day. In telling his story, maybe I can keep a tragedy from happening to somebody else.”