How Old is Your Stuff?

Elders and Their Guns

Pretty much all old people who live in places where public transporation is scarce resist the idea of giving up their car keys and dread reaching the day when it might become necessary. Who can blame us.

In recent years, families, physicians and caregivers are becoming more conscious of the need to help elders decide when it is time to stop driving, but what about firearms?

Do you own a gun or two or more? Does an elder you know or care for have access to guns? What about someone you know with dementia, even early dementia?

The size of the elder gun-owning population is larger than I had imagined. According to a Pew Social Trends survey, about 33 percent of people aged 65 and older in the U.S. owns a gun, and another 12 percent of that cohort lives with someone who does.

In addition, “A 1999 study estimated that 60% of persons with dementia (PWDs) live in a household with a firearm.” And, reports The New York Times,

”More than 8,200 older adults committed suicide in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among men, those over age 65 are the likeliest to take their lives, and three-quarters of them use a gun.”

Obviously the potential for tragedy involving elders with dementia who have access to guns is an important issue that hasn't been well addressed.

Last month, a group of physicians got together to publish an essay in Annals of Internal Medicine about this. In particular, they made a plea for the medical community and others to find a way to make life safer for people with dementia and their potential victims.

The doctors note that federal laws do not prohibit purchase or possession of firearms by people with dementia and only Hawaii and Texas mention those conditions in firearm statutes:

“Hawaii prohibits possession by any person under treatment for 'organic brain syndromes', which could include dementia or similar neurodegenerative conditions. In Texas, persons diagnosed with 'chronic dementia' are ineligible for a license to carry a handgun in public but may purchase and possess firearms.

“Many questions on firearm access in dementia remain unanswered,” wrote the doctors, “but the need to address the problem is here now.

“We believe that a concerted, cooperative effort making the best use of the data at hand can help prevent injuries and deaths while protecting the dignity and rights of older adults.”

There are plenty of anecdotes about near catastrophe involving guns and people with dementia. The authors note in the “Annals” essay that as dementia progresses, family members, health aides and other visitors can be at extreme risk. The Times article includes a story from Dr. Michael Victoroff, a family medicine specialist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (and a certified firearms instructor):

”One of his patients, a retired police officer, had long slept with his service revolver by his bed. But as he neared age 80 and his dementia deepened, 'he would wake up at night and not recognize his wife, see her as a stranger in his house,' Dr. Victoroff said.

“Once Dr. Victoroff learned that the man had pointed the loaded .38 at his wife, the situation grew urgent. They turned to the man’s former partner on the police force, someone he trusted, to persuade him to give up his weapon.”

The essay doctors compare the firearms safety issue with that of driving and suggest that families should discuss giving up guns with relatives diagnosed with dementia. The best time to do that, they say, is when the person can still make decisions for him- or herself:

”Families might consider a so-called 'firearms retirement date,' when they will give up any guns in the home to avoid the potential for these weapons to be in the house when they’re no longer able to store them or use them safely, the paper’s authors suggest.

“Or, in much the same way that people may set up an advance directive giving a loved one the ability to make medical decisions on their behalf, older adults might designate someone they trust to have the authority to take away their guns when the time for this comes.”

Lead “Annals” author, Dr. Marian E. Betz, told Reuters, “'In later stages of dementia, behavioral issues like paranoia or aggression should raise concern, as should threats about suicide or threats towards others,' Betz said. 'Families and friends can then lock up or disable guns or move them out of the home, depending on what works for the family and according to state firearm transfer laws.'

“When guns do remain in the home, they should be locked so that the person with dementia doesn’t have unsupervised access to firearms, and they should be stored unloaded and separate from ammunition, the doctors also recommend.”

To me, never a gun user or owner, implementing these (and even stronger) safety recommendations for people with dementia seem as obvious as giving up driving licenses when the time comes. But according to The New York Times article, it is not as clearcut as I believe:

”Many gun enthusiasts argue that while driving is a privilege, the Constitution protects keeping and bearing arms. And they find firearms a crucial part of their identities and sense of security.

Here we go again – the same old Second Amendment argument, even for people with dementia. There has got to be a middle ground, don't you think?


Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing up this important issue to your readers. I will share widely.

FYI “died by suicide” is preferred to “committed suicide” now. Some use “completed suicide” in certain cases.

If a gun as used, it’s “suicide by gun.” I volunteer with a national gun violence prevention and the specific program I lead in Arizona educated people in how to stop child shootings and teen suicides.

Elders may also need to be reminded to secure their guns and ammo when grandkids visit. Many unfortunate child shootings happen in the homes of grandparents and other relatives who forget how curious and ingenious kids can be.

This is a topic I've never thought about. My first response is that of course people with dementia should not have access to guns. But at the same time I can understand how individuals living alone in dangerous areas -- inner cities, for example -- would feel a lot safer if they had a gun. There's a line somewhere between the two, but I'm not sure where it is or who should enforce it. My feeling has always been that it's safer not to have guns around, period.

Several of my over-70 female friends got concealed carry permits a few years ago. They think if they carry a gun wherever they go, they'll be safe. One even has a handbag especially made to carry a gun, where you can pull the trigger and shoot without removing it from the bag. My thinking, with which they totally disagree because they took a class, is that a younger male will be quicker and stronger than a 70+ woman, and things could go horribly wrong.

No guns in my house ever!

No gun, except for soldiers or policemen !chantal, france

This makes too much sense, especially in the current political climate and the ownership of the Republican Party by the NRA.
I also have never owned a gun, nor would I want to, but many seniors (men in particular) seem hell bent on keeping a bunch of guns to make them still feel powerful.
I'm sure this is not a problem in most of Europe or Canada.

This is one of my soap box issues. Years ago I lived about 20 miles from the state penitentiary and 3 inmates had escaped. My Uncle, worried about me living in an isolated location, brought his rifle for me to protect myself. I didn't want the gun and protested that I would be safer without it. I said, as Joyce stated, that they would just take it away from me and use it on me. He insisted and I didn't want to hurt his feelings so that blasted rifle was on my fireplace mantel until the prisoners were captured.

I hated it and that has been my feeling ever since. So many unnecessary tragedies occur daily from guns in the home, no matter what age the owners are. I think the danger intensifies as we become older and frailer. Dementia is not the only reason that elders should not have a gun in the house unless they are a professional expert in the use and care of a weapon.

Don't get me started on the Second Amendment. It was deliberately distorted by the NRA to mean everyone has the right to bear arms. I have read the history of why that amendment was in the Constitution to begin with and I would say our founders would be horrified at the misuse of those few words now.

I have always been more afraid of guns than intruders!

Common sense seems to get thrown right out the window when it comes to guns. Anybody with a logical thinking brain should recognize a need to rein in the wild and wooly west outdated approach to gun ownership. Citing the 2nd amendment to justify anybody and everybody should have the right to own any ol’ kind of firearm they want is misguided at best and does not reflect what the constitution says at all. We have a milita representing the people in our National Guard who bear arms.

I can personally and professionally vouch for the fact that there can be and are numerous other conditions besides dementia that occur in ordinary people that make their having access to a handgun, or stronger single shot and multi-shot weapons, very dangerous to others as well as themself— I’ve seen it and experienced it. The circumstances may be short-lived or of longer duration but during that period of time are deadly.

I recall, too, a number of years when I was a teenager our household had guns, all of which I was taught to care for and shoot. We all had a healthy respect for their use and they were not mindlessly fired or used to maim or kill other creatures just for sport.

But this dementia issue is a much more permanent state when present and certainly should be addressed.

Those are some startling statistics on the percentage of people with dementia living in houses with guns. I had a very good relationship with my mother-in-law, but when I took care of her for the last couple years of her life, and she had severe dementia, she might have shot me once or twice had she had access to a gun. She had terrible sundowning and was very determined to get out of the house at night, thinking she had to get home to her parents in Tennessee, where she had grown up. When weather allowed, I could sometimes get her in the car and take her for a ride and a McDonald's ice cream cone, which often broke that train of events, but there were times when she would get very angry with me if I could not take her out in the rain or snow. There was often no rational discussion at those times, and I sometimes ended up locking myself in the bathroom and waiting for her mood to pass. It strikes me now how some of that experience was very like living in a household with a domestic violence perpetrator. Guns should be the last thing anyone would want around in that situation.

Will not relate long horror story, but never again have guns anywhere around.

I didn't know if it was OK to share on FB, I just thought it was important enough to do so. I'm glad there are no guns here. Getting that license will be hard enough. While one thinks that can be decided upon early stages, they won't remember it!

What I have always thought, "if you really need a gun, go get a Musket and join a well-regulated militia!"
Only then will the Constitution's 2nd Amendment apply.

No guns in my home! If hard pressed, though, I might get out my can of wasp spray.

Last I looked the statistics are very clear and compelling that gun ownership causes more deaths than it prevents. Having a gun in the home to theoretically protect oneself is a bogus argument and plain and simple, doesn't work. If someone wants to hunt and is trained to use a gun, I can't argue with that. We can look to other countries and see the connection between gun availability and gun violence. The logic is there. For who knows why logic has not prevailed in this country on this issue. If the deaths of young school children didn't do it and continued school shootings, what will it take? This is beyond comprehension for any caring and civilized society. Clearly, we are not this.

A sad Karin

Thank you for a very topical discussion today, Ronni. I find it a real comfort to see the wisdom that comes from you and your readers. When we hang on the vine for a while almost all of us get pretty wise.

So many opinions about the issue are deeply rooted in upbringing, it is rarely a civil debate. I never engage when I can avoid it. Yet now, when someone tells me guns are totally safe with proper training I will point them to today's brief headline from The Washington Examiner.
''A Marine stationed outside the Marine Commandant’s house in Washington, D.C., may be critically injured after he accidentally shot himself, according to the Marine Corps.''

Locally here in Portland a few businesses will no longer sell guns and ammo to anyone under 21. It is at least a step in the right direction and will hopefully set an example

I would like to suggest a great resource for educating ourselves on the issue of gun violence. A free email or online daily or weekly (your choice) newsletter called The Trace shares up-to-date research on this topic. You can also search past posts on specific topics. All of the links are yo major respected news sources, lots of charts for us data geek types, and lots of (cough cough) “ammunition” to use with the gun enthusiasts you may run into! Not able to post a link here but just search for The Trace and then subscribe for free if you think it looks valuable.

Thanks to Kathleen Noble for the idea about "The Trace" newsletter. It is new to me and a (cough cough) 'noble' idea indeed.

I also like Democracy Now...a national, daily, independent, award-winning non-profit news program airing on over public radio and TV stations. No ads make it appealing to me.

I own a handgun.

I likely would have been raped and murdered as would my my then infant son in 1965 when a deranged man broke into my house when I was home alone with my child. He had a Bowie knife that he threatened me with.

My husband and I had a 30.30 rifle and I knew how to shoot it.

As the guy was breaking my back door down after seeing me sitting in my living room one summer evening, I ran with my son into the bedroom, laid him on the floor at the side of the bed and grabbed the shotgun.

I then ran out as the man was pulling his pants down, waving his willie at me. "I'm gonna give you something you need" he said.

"I'm going to give YOU something you need" I replied, "If you don't leave. Now."

He didn't leave but advanced towards me... and I pulled the trigger, hitting the door just inches from his ass.

He ran like a rabbit, pulling his pants up. He dropped his knife. I hope I frightened him sufficiently that he would not break into another woman house. Many people who hear the story say "You bad you missed."

We'd had a series of break in rapes and murders in the part of Los Angeles I lived in and it's probable this was the person who had been doing it.

I swore then I'd never be helpless and have had a rifle or handgun ever since. I even have a carry permit but I don't carry-my gun is in my nightstand.

If I become senile I'm sure my daughter will remove the gun from availability to me, but right now I am not in jeopardy of dementia.

I still go to the range and fire...about every other month..with one of my sons.

I'm a liberal woman and believe in sensible gun laws but I also believe I have the right to self defense.

We used to live in a very rural area. Everyone had guns —for hunting or for shooting varmints that would threaten the chickens.
Many of us walked to the general store, about 2 miles. One early morning my elderly but spry neighbor walked to the store. He had quite a bit of money on him (didn’t trust banks). He also had a handgun.
Some young visiting relatives from an unsavory neighborhood happened upon him. They robbed him, and killed him with his own gun.
I kept my gun loaded and ready for weeks after that. I was glad I had it, but I hated living in fear. The same teenagers also killed another old man who lived alone, only that old man had a state trooper for a son. They were tracked, caught and sent to prison. After that happened, I could relax, and unloaded my gun. Still kept it, though.
I live in a suburb now—and I know my reflexes nor my aim are good enough to be effective with something so dangerous. I do know how to call 911!

I would never, ever have a gun in the house. My first husband was a gun nut, and even 30-plus years later, I could myself lucky to have gotten out of that marriage without getting shot.
Naturally, I am completely convinced that guns are the way weak, cruel, and inadequate men feel like they have "control" over criminals--and troublesome women. They are wrong. I am living proof.

Personally, I'm not a fan of guns and never have been. If I were to seek a way to end my life (which, by the way, I think should be an elder's individual option under certain circumstances) use of a firearm would be the absolute last resort--and probably one I would reject. I am not a fan of guns. Apparently, neither Kate Spade nor Anthony Bourdain were either since both allegedly hung themselves.

On the other hand, my husband grew up a in a rural area during the 1930s-40s where everyone hunted and owned guns. He joined the armed services at 18 and became a law enforcement officer for a number of years thereafter. He is a totally level-headed and responsible gun owner who enjoys working with guns mechanically as a hobby. We are both of sound mind, and firearms are always secured on the rare occasions when there are young people in our home (or anyone we do not know well). I have accepted that in the hands of a responsible, experienced, well trained, licensed owner like my spouse, guns can be safely owned.

I'm so sick of the 2nd amendment.

In Seattle, one can surrender one's gun(s) to the police department and they will be melted down at a foundry. That is what I did with my husband's guns after he died. I did not know how to properly use or handle them and didn't want to.

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