The debate surrounding gun ownership has been raging for decades, and I want to preface this article by acknowledging that seniors and guns are not a “bad” combination by default. Advancing age, by itself, should not preclude anyone from leading an independent life and enjoying their rights and privileges. However, when exercising one’s freedoms threatens others’ safety or puts oneself in danger, I do believe that some sort of intervention is necessary.

Comparing Taking Away the Car Keys and Taking Guns From Elderly Parents

I find that a simple comparison helps me wrap my head around this heavily contested topic. Many family caregivers are familiar with the dreaded process of addressing unsafe driving with aging loved ones. Whether an elder gets lost while driving, has a few fender benders or near misses, or experiences worsening eyesight or reaction time, it becomes clear at some point that they should no longer be on the road. In my opinion, guns fall into the same category as cars. Both are useful tools, but they can also be lethal, whether intentionally or accidentally.

While I’ve never owned a gun, I live in an area where hunting is a popular sport. Many households here have one or more guns used for hunting, and some people also own hand guns for protection. A 2020 Gallup poll found that 32 percent of adults in the U.S. say they personally own a gun, while 44 percent say they live in a gun household.

I feel that if an elder is cognitively sound and has good eyesight and reflexes, he or she should be able to possess a firearm for hunting and self-defense. I don’t feel that age alone should be a deciding factor with guns any more than it is with driving. However, as with the ability to drive a car, the time may come for many elders when owning a gun is no longer safe. That’s when the challenge of removing this hazard arises.

When Does Gun Ownership Become Too Dangerous for Seniors?

Continuing with the comparison between the ability to safely own a firearm and drive a car, the answer to this question is very rarely black and white. In fact, part of the difficulty with taking away an aging loved one’s driving privileges is that they usually haven’t harmed themselves or others or caused any serious property damage… yet. Their family members can see the writing on the wall and are anxious about what could happen if they continue getting behind the wheel. The trouble is that the time to cut an elder off may only become clear after something conclusive occurs.

Daniel C. Potts, M.D., FAAN, attending neurologist at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center and founder and president of the Cognitive Dynamics Foundation, feels that elders who are not cognitively impaired should be allowed to continue owning guns without any restrictions that are not already in place for the general population.

“The case of documented cognitive impairment, however, would be different,” Potts says.

Cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease (or other forms of dementia) and mental health disorders, such as depression and psychosis, are the biggest red flags for families to look for when deciding if it is still safe for a loved one to own firearms. Confusion, memory issues, inability to recognize or remember who friends and family are, impaired decision-making capabilities, delusions, hallucinations and paranoia can all contribute to a terrible accident.

While some may think these risks and concerns are overblown, there are plenty of recorded cases involving guns and dementia patients and likely many more that have not been properly documented. A joint investigation conducted by Kaiser Health News and PBS NewsHour confirmed more than 100 incidents (15 homicides and more than 95 suicides) between 2012 and 2018 in which people with dementia used guns to kill or injure themselves or others.

According to a report published by the Alzheimer’s Association, 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2022, and this number is expected to more than double by 2050. Given the current state of gun ownership in America and the growing prevalence of all forms of dementia, this dilemma is bound to affect more and more families.

“I personally feel that guns should be removed from the homes of those with documented dementia,” Potts explains, “or at least sequestered safely so that only family members with their faculties have access to them.”

Other less serious age-related factors that might at least warrant a healthy discussion about responsible gun ownership, safe gun handling techniques and storage practices include changes in eyesight, hearing loss, slowed response times, the use of certain types of drugs that can affect mood, judgement, and alertness, and limited mobility and coordination. Even if an elder is emotionally stable and mentally competent, certain physical conditions can still contribute to dangerous—even fatal—mistakes.

Why Elders Wish to Keep Their Guns

Susan Madlung, RN, BScN, MSc Gerontology, Eden Alternative Associate, and resident care manager at Langley Lodge in Langley, British Columbia, adds that there is another important factor to consider when addressing a senior’s gun ownership: their motives. This often boils down to their desire to feel protected and secure. As we age, we concentrate more on basic needs like shelter, food and safety.

“If an elder is in possession of a gun, my first step would be to ask them why, rather than jump to managing the gun itself,” Madlung notes. “If safety is their main concern, ask questions to determine what exactly is causing the elder to feel unsafe and whether the threat is genuine or perceived. Usually, the more vulnerable or isolated they feel, the greater the perceived threat will be.”

Ideally, understanding the fear or uncertainty that causes an elder to think they need a gun for protection can help everyone work together to devise a way of addressing these concerns and seek out other alternatives for improving comfort and security. This could include carrying pepper spray instead of a gun, installing additional security measures around their home, moving in with family, transitioning to a senior living facility with regular security patrols, etc.

“Addressing feelings of safety and social isolation can help to minimize their need for such a powerful weapon to protect themselves,” advises Madlung. “Improved feelings of safety will go a long way in improving quality of life as well.”

However, for some people and in some areas of the U.S., gun ownership is an essential part of life. For a senior, giving up their firearm(s) can be tantamount to giving up their independence and part of their identity. When understanding their need to hang on to a gun doesn’t help solve the issue, other means must be used.

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How to Address Gun Ownership With an Aging Loved One

There is no single best way to tackle delicate subjects like this one. Your approach should depend on your loved one’s level of cognition, their physical and mental health, their reasons for owning a gun/guns, and the nature of your relationship with them.

Say Dad has been a responsible gun owner his whole life, has no signs of any impairment or age-related decline, and you two are close. It can’t hurt to discuss the possibility of one day having to sell his weapons or pass them along to another trustworthy family member for safe keeping. Discussing these matters early on can help an elder feel involved in the decision and prevent unexpected issues down the road.

If you have noticed behavioral changes in a loved one and suspect some sort of cognitive impairment, seeking a diagnosis early on is critical whether they own firearms or not. Gathering as much information as possible will help the entire family be better prepared and will enable you to address difficult issues as they arise. A dementia diagnosis will require you to work closely with your loved one’s doctors to ensure they understand there are guns in the home. Just as with driving, a physician should be available and willing to help family members determine if safety is a concern and how to proceed while keeping everyone’s best interests in mind.

“Ideally, I think that a health care provider should have a discussion after the initial diagnosis with both the patient and caregiver, if possible, to talk about how to safeguard the home and environment,” suggests Dr. Potts. “This would include things like securing or removing any weapons, or at least having them supervised by another family member with access restricted for the patient.”

Many members of the Caregiver Forum have offered excellent advice to fellow caregivers who are struggling with this problem. For example, one woman’s mother had always carried her gun for protection, but she became more fearful than ever after being diagnosed with dementia. She absolutely refused to give up her weapon, and her daughter didn’t know what to do. Another member suggested that the daughter take the gun to a professional and have it permanently disabled. Countless caregivers have had to use the same approach with their loved ones’ cars to prevent them from driving.

Once the weapon is disabled, the elder should be able to enjoy the feeling of gun ownership without the risk of accidentally hurting or killing themselves or someone else. Obviously, as with so many caregiving issues, you wouldn’t let your loved one know of the change. Just be aware that even a disabled weapon poses a risk, since law enforcement and other individuals will still react as if it is operational. Disabling may be an alternative, but removing guns altogether remains the safest option.

Where to Seek Help Retiring a Senior’s Guns

While gun laws and background checks are in place to prevent high-risk individuals from purchasing weapons in the first place, many seniors are unique in that they are not considered risky or unfit for gun ownership until later in life—after they have already legally obtained weapons.

Generally, this demographic does not pose the same dramatic public safety threats that are so often cited in gun control debates. But that does not change the fact that family members are concerned their aging loved ones may mistake them for an intruder, take their own lives, or react violently to delusions or hallucinations they think are real.

If discussing these concerns with your loved one directly is not possible or productive, it can be helpful to contact their physician, the local police department and even the family attorney for guidance on ensuring their safety and the well-being of those around them. A police officer may be able to help confiscate and destroy the weapons. It may be difficult and heartbreaking to attempt, but revoking a loved one’s concealed-carry license is also an option.

Lastly, a handful of states feature gun control laws that go by various names, including Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) and Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs). These so-called “red flag” laws allow law enforcement officials, and in some cases family members, to petition for the immediate and temporary seizure of weapons from a person who poses a danger to themselves or others. The owner can then attend a hearing where the court determines how long the weapons will be held in custody.

Nineteen states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington) and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of this red flag law, but others are considering them. It is worth noting that one state, Oklahoma, enacted an anti-red flag law in 2020 that “prohibits the state or any city, county or political subdivision from enacting red flag laws.”

Ultimately, no family member wants to infringe on a loved one’s rights or independence, but at some point, we must take responsibility for their well-being, our own and that of our neighbors in the community. Being a caregiver isn’t about doing what is easy. It is about doing what is best for those we love.