Did the VA Miss the Forest While Looking Only at the Trees In Buying Suicide Prevention Gun Locks?

By Alan Chvotkin
PSC Executive Vice President and Counsel

Sept. 11, 2019

Every once in a while, a GAO bid protest decision is issued that catches my attention for reasons having nothing to do with the underlying legal issue being decided. Such was the case with the June 3, 2019 decision in Veterans4You, Inc., that challenged a solicitation issued by the Government Publishing Office (GPO) on behalf of the VA to procure suicide prevention locks.  If you’re asking what the Government Publishing Office is doing buying suicide prevention locks, you’re raising the same question I did. 

The VA runs an important program known as the Veterans Crisis Line as part of a larger suicide prevention program for veterans. As part of the program, the VA offers veterans access to suicide prevention gun locks that prevent almost any type of firearm from being used. The gun locks also come with an imprint with the Veterans Crisis Line logo, contact information, and a wallet card with contact and additional information. 

There is no information in the GAO decision about the VA’s procurement history in purchasing these gun locks with the imprints and contact information. In this case, however, the VA used the special acquisition authority of the Government Publishing Office (previously known as the Government Printing Office) by designating the procurement as a “printing requirement” for the information, along with the gun locks that the “printing” was to be affixed to. Again, there is no information in the decision about the respective dollar value of the “printing” or the gun locks, or where the GPO would obtain the gun locks to affix the printing to. (Let’s hope the GPO does not routinely acquire such gun locks!)

Nevertheless, on behalf of the VA, GPO issued an Invitation for Bid (IFB) to acquire a quantity of these gun locks and planned to print the required information. In its pre-award bid protest, Veterans4You, Inc. protested the terms of the IFB for failing to give preferences to service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses or veteran-owned small businesses as required by the Veterans Benefits Act (the so-called VA “rule of two”). Both the VA and the GPO asserted that because of the unique statutory requirement applicable to “printing and binding” services that requires the use of GPO for such services, the GPO (and thus this procurement) are exempt from the mandate of the VA Act.  

GAO disagreed, and in a continuation of their long-standing and repetitive decisions, concluded that the GPO procurement conducted on behalf of the VA was subject to the Act’s mandate. The GAO sustained the protest and recommended that GPO coordinate its efforts with the VA to meet the VA’s requirement for suicide prevention gun locks and the “VA rule of two.” 

But GAO did not see a need to address whether the use of the GPO was the appropriate mechanism for the underlying acquisition. In a footnote to the decision, GAO concludes that, if the GPO printing authority is being properly used, the requirements of the “VA rule of two” still apply. 

I hope the VA is asking itself the question of whether they have properly used GPO’s special “printing and binding” acquisition authority to be acquiring these important suicide prevention gun locks. Others—like me—are asking that question.