Researchers estimate that nearly half of people over 65 either own a gun or live in a household with someone who does. Thus, it is important for family members of those with dementia to recognize the importance of gun safety, and to deal with that issue as early as possible.
At the more advanced stages of dementia, when the person might not recognize a loved one, including a spouse, that person can become frightened and threaten or do harm to the loved one out of confusion or the perceived need to protect him/herself from this stranger in the house. The risk of suicide or accidental self-harm also increases as the dementia becomes more pronounced. Here are some legal and practical steps to stay safe.
What can families do ahead of time?
Talk to your loved one early on about how to safely transfer ownership of, or store, his/her guns if he/she should become incapacitated. At a minimum, consider writing a firearms agreement, in which the owner would authorize a designated family member to determine when it is time to remove access by the owner to her/his guns.
At the very least, family members should make arrangements to store the guns unloaded in a locked cabinet or safe, with the ammunition stored separately. Doctors are legally allowed to inquire about access to firearms when a person is diagnosed with dementia, but, experts say, they often don’t. Therefore, families should discuss with the doctor gun safety along with other concerns, such as driving and use of kitchen appliances and power tools.
What if a person with dementia wants to transfer his/her guns?
In Pennsylvania, there are strict rules on the sale or transfer of guns by unlicensed sellers; typically they may only sell a handgun or short-barreled rifle or shotgun to an unlicensed purchaser at the place of business of a licensed importer, manufacturer, dealer or county sheriff’s office, which sale or transfer must comply with all of Pennsylvania’s dealer regulations, including a background check on the purchaser. However, these requirements do not apply to transfers between spouses, parents and children, or grandparents and grandchildren, or generally to transfers of long guns; thus, such transfers can be fairly easily accomplished. For gun laws of other states, see the websites NRA Institute for Legislative Action or Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
What if the gun owner doesn’t want to give them up?
By federal law, a person loses the right to buy or own a gun if a judge deems that person mentally incompetent to make decisions. In such a case, family members likely would have to go to court and obtain a guardianship of the person, so that the guardian can take control of the guns.
What about veterans?
Veterans who have been deemed mentally incompetent to manage their finances also lose their right, under federal law, to buy or own guns. As of March 2018 nearly 109,000 veterans were barred from gun ownership because of their enrollment in the Veterans Affairs fiduciary program.
What if they’re making threats?
Police can take guns away from someone who threatens a specific crime. Pennsylvania does not have a “red flag” gun law permitting the removal of guns from a person who exhibits dangerous behavior. However, Pennsylvania recently passed a law requiring those subject to a final protection from abuse order or convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to turn over their weapons to law enforcement within 24 hours after the order or conviction.
The possession or control of firearms is an important topic of discussion and planning with those who show signs of dementia, and sooner rather than later. And it's important to get your planning done sooner rather than later. Take the first step today and register for one of our upcoming workshops.