6 Steps Families Can Take When a Loved One Has Guns and Dementia

By Meike Wiest MSW, CMC, Triangle Area President

Gun ownership and possible regulations are debated nationwide and opinions are very polarized. It is a topic that I tend to avoid when possible, but have been faced with time and time again in my professional life as a Aging Life Care Professional, also known as geriatric care manager. Back when I was relatively new on the job, I received a call from a concerned out-of-town daughter, worried that dad, a former police officer with Alzheimer’s, told her on the phone he gave his guns to a neighbor because he knew she expressed worry about him having them in the house. The daughter felt strongly that the neighbor was not trustworthy and of course it is a legal concern to just “give away” registered firearms. What to do now?

Just as I was ill prepared for how to handle the issue of gun ownership and dementia, so are many family members and caregivers. As a care manager in the South, I had to become much better informed in how to address this sensitive issue and how to talk about it. Many aging individuals, especially men, often have a strong emotional attachment to their firearms. Some are veterans or former law enforcement, hunters or collectors. Whatever the reason, giving up the right to bear arms can be a difficult step for some and many families are reluctant to limit access. I encourage all of my geriatric care managers to inquire about the presence of weapons in the home when working with individuals with dementia and encourage conversation. Doctors legally have the right to inquire as well, but often do not. They can be an ally in addressing this issue and should be consulted.

Dementia and Guns Are a Deadly Combination

Kaiser Health News published an article in June 2018, summarizing their research on the matters: “From news reports, court records, hospital data and public death records, KHN found 15 homicides and more than 95 suicides since 2012, although there are likely many more. The shooters often acted during bouts of confusion, paranoia, delusion or aggression — common symptoms of dementia. They killed people closest to them — their caretaker, wife, son or daughter. They shot at people they happened to encounter — a mailman, a police officer, a train conductor. At least four men with dementia who brandished guns were fatally shot by police. In cases where charges were brought, many assailants were deemed incompetent to stand trial. Many killed themselves. Among men in the U.S., the suicide rate is highest among those 65 and older; firearms are the most common method, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These statistics do not begin to tally incidents in which a person with dementia waves a gun at an unsuspecting neighbor or a terrified home health aide.”

What Can Families Do?

But what can families do to address this issue? There currently is no “assessment” available to evaluate a person’s ability to safely own a firearm. As with most aging related issues, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Having a conversation early on, before cognitive issues arise or early in the dementia process, is ideal. Do you know if your aging loved one ownes firearms, how many, where are they stored? How does the older adult feel about them and what would they want to happen should they develop dementia?

  1. As in the case I mentioned earlier, if a gunowner wants to surrender a gun that they do not want to sell or pass on to others, call your local police department’s non-emergency number and they will walk you through the steps on how they can take possession.
  2. Storing weapons in a locked gun safe, gun locks and removing ammunition are best practice anyway and can become even more important for households with individuals that have a dementia diagnosis. It reduces access, while maintaining a sense of ownership.
  3. Is the owner willing to develop a “gun trust”, which would transfer ownership to another family should dementia become a reality? This makes the transfer of ownership easier, but it requires compliance. There are elder law attorneys that can advise you in how to establish such a trust and when and how it should be “triggered”.
  4. Sometimes, guns can be disabled or replaced with a decoy. Families may choose to “borrow” a weapon for an indefinite period. Knowing that another family member “needs” the gun for protection, a hunting trip etc. can make parting with it easier and attach a sense of pride and purpose for the primary owner.
  5. If there is a serious concern and the individual is exhibiting unsafe behavior, eleven states so far have passed “red flag” gun laws, which let law enforcement, and sometimes other state officials, seek a court order to temporarily seize guns from someone who exhibits dangerous behavior. In five of those states, family or household members can also initiate these gun-seizure requests. North Carolina currently has a bill pending.  The measure, HB976, would allow a family member or law enforcement to ask a district court for an “extreme risk protection order,” or ERPO, to avert danger. Tennessee has no legislation at this time. Currently, without other legal options, a guardianship petition may be a necessary step when a family is observing unsafe behaviors around gun ownership and is suspecting that the individual’s competence is significantly impaired and it is putting the person and/or others in danger. The court will then determine if the individual is competent and can be in possession of a firearm. The underlying statute that prevents individuals deemed mentally incompetent from purchasing firearms is The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. In an immediate emergency situation involving a firearm and a person with dementia, call 911 and request a CIT officer and inform the dispatcher that the individual is armed and has dementia. CIT officers are part of the Crisis Intervention Team and are specially trained to work with individuals with mental health, developmental and cognitive issues.
  6. Consulting with a care manager can be a great step to begin the dialogue. Our wish is always to maximize independence and self-determination and we try to think outside the box, while also maintaining health and safety. Our clients have found it helpful to have a neutral third party involved to assess the situation, explore and explain strategies and options to reduce risk and to avoid more invasive steps, such as incompetency proceedings.

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