Safeguarding guns falls to families

People with dementia who own guns pose a threat to themselves or others, but removing their access to firearms can be easier said than done. As is often the case with guns, there is no simple answer, no piece of legislation that will remove every risk. Instead, family members must be prepared to take responsibility.

A story in the Mail Tribune last Sunday from Kaiser Health News laid out the problem in detail. The report included accounts of a retired police chief in Oregon who accidentally shot his wife while handling his guns, and an Idaho man who shot his son-in-law in a fit of rage.

Those are anecdotes. The available data suggest there will be more.

While the rate of dementia is decreasing, the number of people over 65 is soaring. And a 2017 survey found that 45 percent of those have guns in their household.

In Washington state, an analysis of government survey data showed 5 percent of those over 65 who responded reported worsening memory and confusion and guns in their household. That could be as many as 54,000 people.

If that’s not alarming, consider this statistic: 1.4 percent of respondents over 65 said they had cognitive decline and kept their guns unlocked and loaded. That works out to 15,000 people in Washington state.

We don’t have the corresponding number for Oregon, or for any other state, because Washington is the only state that tracked those trends. The gun lobby successfully has blocked federally funded research into guns as a public health issue, so detailed data is not available. Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association declined to comment on the Kaiser Health News story.

What the NRA and other gun-rights advocates routinely argue is that existing laws should be fully enforced before new ones are adopted. Federal law already says people declared not competent to manage their own affairs may not purchase or own guns. But merely being diagnosed with dementia does not count.

Oregon is one of a handful of states that has adopted so-called red flag laws, which allow law enforcement or family members to seek a court order to temporarily seize guns from people who pose a threat to themselves or others. That requires family members to take legal action against a loved one who may resist their efforts. That’s not an easy thing to do.

A better approach would be to address the issue early, when the person’s dementia is first diagnosed. Families can draw up a “gun trust” that spells out how firearms will be transferred to family members as the affected person’s dementia progresses — essentially an advance directive for guns. If the discussion happens soon after the diagnosis, and the gun owner cooperates, that can make the process easier.

Doctors, too, should routinely ask about guns in the home when they discuss a diagnosis of dementia with patients and their families. But violence prevention researchers say doctors are more likely to discuss driving than guns. That’s not acceptable.

Yes, we know: Driving is a privilege, and gun ownership is a constitutional right. But both can become deadly in the wrong hands, and people with advanced dementia should not have access to either.

Any suggestion that the government should assess gun owners’ cognitive abilities raises the specter of a totalitarian state trampling their freedom. So that leaves family members to do what must be done.

Most people don’t think twice about taking away Dad’s car keys for his own protection and that of others when his mental condition deteriorates. It should be no different for his guns.

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