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When it’s time to give up the gun

Age and disease may eventually leave you unable to handle firearms safely

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Some of us, regrettably, will reach a point where we can’t or shouldn’t be handling firearms anymore.

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The worst thing about growing old, noted a character in the 2012 movie “Act of Valor,” was that “other men stopped seeing you as dangerous.”

For us older sheepdogs, this is always in the backs of our minds. It may make us reluctant, later in life, to surrender the one great equalizer we have – our firearms. That’s why this is such a difficult and sensitive topic.

Many of us have carried guns for the better part of our lives, 40–50 years or more. For some, the only time they use their firearms after retiring is that annual trip to the range to qualify.

Aging is something we all face, and with it comes a certain loss of abilities. Our reaction times are slower, and maybe we’re no longer those crack shots who score 100% on those qualifications. Some of us, regrettably, will reach a point where we can’t or shouldn’t be handling firearms anymore. We either recognize it ourselves or someone else will tell us – like (cringe) a range master. But more likely it will be a spouse, family member, or friend who tells us it’s time.

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What impacts safe handling?

There are many causes that can impact your ability to perform mechanical functions with your hands or arms and thus your ability to handle a firearm safely and competently. These include conditions that cause muscle atrophy/weakness, paralysis and disabling injuries or illnesses that limit mobility, like a stroke or Parkinson’s disease. Partial or total blindness caused by macular degeneration, cataracts, etc., or plain poor eyesight can make weapons handling all but impossible. Mental clarity, reasoning and judgment are essential when handling or carrying a firearm. These can be affected by traumatic brain injuries, untreated PTSD, tumors/cancer, stroke and abuse or long-term use of opioid painkillers or alcohol.

Perhaps the scariest one for anyone is cognitive impairment or decline caused by Alzheimer’s and dementia. Cognitive decline and psychiatric conditions that impair your ability to think and reason clearly present the most danger to you and your loved ones when you have access to a firearm. Dementia can cause things like paranoia, delusions, aggression and loss of reasoning and memory. That can be a deadly combination for anyone with access to a gun.

According to a 2019 article in “The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,” titled “Firearms: Access and Implications in Older Adults with Cognitive Impairment,” evidence suggests there are particularly high-risk times and possible contributing factors for suicide in those with cognitive impairment. [1] And cognitive disorders are among the most prevalent psychiatric diagnoses in elderly homicide perpetrators.

Case in point: Darrell Hill, 76, a wheelchair-bound former local police chief and two-term county sheriff in Oregon, was diagnosed in 2013 with rapidly progressive dementia. One day in 2015 Hill, sitting in his wheelchair, accidentally shot his wife of 57 years, with no comprehension of what happened. His wife, fortunately, survived after three surgeries and seven weeks of hospitalization. [2]

Plan your firearms’ future now

Those of you in generally good physical shape without any of the other issues may continue as usual (albeit a bit slower) until end of watch. However, many of us, with some exceptions, will come to the painful conclusion on our own that we no longer can qualify to carry a weapon or even handle a firearm safely. And for others, there might be a day when a spouse, family member, or friend must tell them it’s time to hang it up. We all contemplate our own mortality at some time or another, but we may not think of these other things.

If this has crossed your mind, it is better to plan now before it happens. You should have a plan for the disposition of your firearms once you no longer are able to handle them or upon your eventual demise. If this is left undecided, your spouse and family will be forced to deal with it.

Sit down and have a frank discussion with your significant other and/or loved ones. You have a couple of options when and if the time comes. You can dispose of your firearms by gifting/willing them to family, selling them, or agreeing to have them sold for you. Transfer is subject to state and federal laws. Revocable or irrevocable gun trusts and National Firearms Act gun trusts are a few ways to pass along firearms to your heirs. A gun trust is a management trust created specifically to hold the titles of firearms. The trust allows you to name a trustee or trustees who can legally possess, manage and use firearms in the trust. There are resources out there that can help you set these up.

Lastly, talk with your spouse/family, do some research and together create a plan.

References

1. Glover JA, Joshi KG, Nagle M, Hrisko S. Firearms: Access and Implications in Older Adults with Cognitive Impairment. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Mar 2019.

2. Aleccia J, Bailey M. Unlocked and Loaded: Families Confront Dementia and Guns. KFF Health News. June 25, 2018.

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Dan Phillips retired after serving 23 years as a military criminal investigator and 16 years in the security and counterintelligence fields for the federal service. Today he is a security manager for a major defense contractor.

Dan serves as the LEOSA program chair for the Washington state Fraternal Order of Police. He is a regular contributor to Police1 and has also written in Police Chief magazine.