Armed and Aging: Is That a Problem?

Do we need tighter gun controls for people in their later years?

Richard Swift grew up in the era of John Wayne and Gene Autry, cinematic cowboys whose armed antics drove his daydreams. He had a BB gun years before the first whiskers sprouted on his chin. At 12, he got a .22-caliber rifle that he’d lug around the hills and fields of his rural southeastern Pennsylvania burg, shooting targets and learning to hunt.

“Mostly, I was just shooting things that were there, like a stick floating down the creek. I’d shoot bumblebees if they settled on a limb. I’m sure I made a few snakes disappear. Any kind of small, challenging target—it was about trying to hit what you were aiming at,” Swift reminisced.

His fondness for firearms didn’t fade as he aged. As a young man, he joined the Delaware National Guard, his shooting skills so honed by then that he competed in marksmanship matches on the National Guard’s army rifle team. Later, as a banker, he armed himself for protection as he delivered cash between bank branches. 

He’s now 67 and retired, and those days are long behind him. He hasn’t carried a gun in years and doesn’t hunt anymore either, his age having robbed him of the stamina needed for stalking animals over arduous acreage. Still, he has no plans to dispose of the three pistols, two shotguns and three rifles (including that .22 he got as a kid) he has collected over his lifetime.

“If you’ve collected and cherished something all your life, you’re hesitant to just get rid of them; there’s a sense of self that’s in that stuff, and you like the things you like to stay around you,” Swift said.

Besides, he added, his guns make him feel safer “simply because of the environment and the way the world is changing…. I’m not as fast and agile and strong as I used to be, so I need an edge in case, God forbid, I encounter a depressed teenager or a religious zealot with a gun. I’m not the kind of person who will hide under a table listening to some crazy person reload his gun two or three times.”

Swift is far from alone in the fact that his ardor for arms hasn’t abated with age. 

Older Americans have the highest gun ownership rates in the United States, with firearms in 40 percent of households headed by someone age 50 to 64 or age 65 and older, according to the Pew Research Center. And a disproportionate number of older Americans apply to carry concealed weapons, according to a 2012 study in the American Journal of Public Health. The reasons for such trends vary: older Americans tend to have more disposable income with which to buy guns; they’ve had a longer time to amass an arsenal; and many invest in arms as a way to counter the physical vulnerabilities that can come with aging. 

Whatever their reasons, the rate of older Americans with firearms is expected to rise as the population ages; the United States has 45 million residents age 65 or older, a demographic that’s likely to more than double by 2060, according to census takers.

Such numbers have caught the attention of gun manufacturers and supporters. Constitution Arms, a New Jersey-based manufacturer, created a triggerless “Palm Pistol” specifically for older customers. The $1,350, single-shot firearm is “an adaptive aid intended for seniors, disabled or others with grip limitations due to hand strength, manual dexterity or phalangeal amputations,” according to the company’s website. And The Armed Senior Citizen, a monthly column in Concealed Carry Magazine, proved so popular, its author, Bruce Eimer, compiled the columns into an e-book covering such topics as “Bear Arms in a Wheelchair” and “Arthritis and Defensive Handgun Training.”

Should Rights Outweigh Risks?

Still, some aren’t as comfortable with the idea of so many older adults owning guns, considering certain risk factors that can accompany aging.

“When I think about older adults and access to guns, the thing that immediately springs to mind is their incredibly high rates of suicide—and suicides from guns in particular. From a public health perspective, that’s a really big concern,” said Shannon Frattaroli, PhD, associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Older adults generally have higher suicide rates than other age groups; nearly 10,200 Americans age 60 and up died from suicide in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while the incidence of major depression among older adults (estimated at 1 to 5 percent for those living independently) isn’t as high as other demographic groups, depression rates rise to 13.5 percent for those who require home health care and 11.5 percent for older hospital patients, according to the CDC.

Other trends make suicide an alarming risk, especially for older men. While women have higher rates of mental disorders like depression and of suicide attempts, men are more successful at committing suicide than women, experts and statisticians agree. That’s largely because men (who are three times as likely as women to own guns) most often use guns to take their own lives, a quicker and more lethal method than the poisonings and pills women prefer, according to Scientific American.

White men 85 and over are especially at risk: the CDC reports that that group commits suicide at four times the rate of the general population.

Suicidal people can become homicidal, adding another layer of potential heartache to an already thorny issue. An elder-abuse and domestic-violence researcher studied 225 murder-suicides among couples with at least one partner age 60 or older for a 2007 paper published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging; the author found that firearms were most often used to carry out the violence in the cases she studied. 

“So much of the dialogue around guns in this country has been around crime, and lately, mass shootings. And the older population is not part of that. But when you look at the suicide issue, it’s impossible to ignore older Americans,” Frattaroli said. “With that in mind, any conversation about guns has to include a conversation [about] gun ownership among older adults. There’s definitely more to be done on that issue in the United States.” 

Beyond suicide and depression, another looming mental health issue worries experts when it comes to older adults with guns: dementia. 

One in three older Americans die of Alzheimer’s disease or some other dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. So what if an older neighbor, relative or patient begins showing signs of diminishing mental capacities—and he or she has guns?

“If someone has frontal lobe dementia, which impacts behavior, they could be at a greater risk of using that firearm to harm themselves or others as they misinterpret their environment,” said Cher Ann Kier, a licensed clinical social worker and geriatric mental health specialist affiliated with the University of Washington Northwest Geropsychiatric Center. “Dementia often causes feelings of paranoia and delusions, especially in the earlier stages when [patients] believe people are stealing from them—when in actuality, it is often that they misplaced an item or put it somewhere ‘safe’ but then can’t recall doing so. Impulsivity, behavioral dyscontrol and angry outbursts can all come on suddenly and without warning and could result in gun violence.”

Physical challenges that accompany aging also can impede safe gun handling, from a loss of visual acuity, fine-motor dexterity and hand strength to decreased reaction time and impaired hearing, experts agree.

Still, Kier doesn’t think the answer is setting an upper age limit for gun ownership, in the same way states set minimum ages for buying or possessing firearms. 

“This would just add to ageism. The stereotypes of older people all becoming mentally incompetent and dependent would be strengthened by adding an age limit,” she said. “So instead of age being a limiting factor, diagnosis should be. In Washington, people who have concerns about an older adult driving can report it to the DMV or [their] MD. People should also be able to report their concerns to the gun-licensing department or the police when a person’s cognition is deteriorating and they could be a danger to themselves or others.”

Other public health experts agree that physicians should ask older patients if they have guns in the home, in much the same way they’d ask about other health threats such as cigarette smoking, alcohol use and driving. 

“I certainly think it’s a reasonable area for physicians to pursue, particularly when we’re talking about people who are at higher risk of suicide,” Frattaroli said.

But the National Rifle Association has loudly opposed such measures, complaining that doctors and health insurers have no right to bully patients out of their constitutional right to bear arms.

And while lawmakers in most states have enacted laws requiring motorists to prove their proficiency behind the wheel as they grow older, the idea of enacting such competency tests for gun owners hasn’t proven popular. A simple Google search shows why: thousands of stories come up about elderly drivers killing people in accidents. Far fewer involve elderly gun owners killing people, and in most of those cases, the shooter’s age is incidental.

Still, for Frattaroli, it comes down to a simple risks-and-benefits assessment.

“Older adults need to consider the risk whether an actual home invasion is likely to occur, versus the likelihood that the (older) person would use that gun to do harm to themselves, or a grandchild would find that gun, or they would harm someone coming into the home who’s not there for a home invasion, someone there for a legitimate purpose like a caretaker,” she said. “The unintended and tragic potential family impact is much greater for older people than that scenario that the home would be invaded in the middle of the night and they would need to ward off that criminal with a gun.”

But neither giving up arms nor enacting blanket restrictions that assume all older gun owners are dangerous are good answers, one gun-rights advocate insisted.

“I don’t see what argument you could make to say one size fits all,” said Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America and author of On the Firing Line: Essays in the Defense of Liberty (2001). “As long as people are able to live independently, I think people who want to be able to protect themselves, at least while the police are getting there, ought to be able to protect themselves.”

Searching for Solutions

Kristyn Bernier’s father was 63 when he shot himself to death on the family’s blueberry farm in New Hampshire in 2003. So you might think she’d be all for disarming older folks.

Instead, she said the underlying issues that drive a person to pull the trigger must be addressed at any age. Her father, who had a thriving dental practice in Connecticut, had long grappled with depression. But even Bernier—a police detective in Portsmouth, NH, trained in dealing with crisis—was blindsided by her father’s suicide.

Even had she suspected the danger in time to do something, disarming him would have done little good, she said. Although he had many of his own guns at his Connecticut home, he used an antique hunting rifle left forgotten in the farmhouse and sneaked some cartridges from a neighbor’s house to kill himself. 

“If you take the gun out of their hands, then you’ve bought some time, at least on that day,” Bernier said. “But if they’re dead set on something, they’re going to do it—unless you get them help to address the depression.”

State lawmakers in California recently offered a unique solution that could appease both sides: the gun violence restraining order.

The statewide policy, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2016, is based on the domestic violence restraining-order system, in which concerned citizens can turn to the courts for help, said Frattaroli, who serves as associate director for outreach for Johns Hopkins’ Center for Injury Research and Policy.

Specifically, the gun violence restraining order addresses concerns a loved one or neighbor might have about someone experiencing any crisis—whether an age-related ailment like dementia or something else like job loss or a spouse’s death—that might prompt them to harm themselves or others with a gun, Frattaroli said. A judge can order police to remove the guns for up to a year, as well as prohibit the troubled citizen from buying new guns, she added. An assemblywoman introduced the measure in 2014, two days after Elliot Rodger, 22, fatally stabbed, shot or hit with his car 20 people (six of whom died) before killing himself in Isla Vista, CA.

“It’s a system that’s initiated by family members or citizens in the community. I think it’s a really good response for people who have concerns about the overreach of government,” Frattaroli said.

While gun-owning Americans are notoriously vocal about their right to bear arms, most—like Swift, the Pennsylvania gun owner—would agree they don’t want guns in the hands of someone dangerous.

“I’m a very strong believer in the Constitution; I’m a freedom kind of guy. Live and let live,” Swift said. Still, “guns are not to be taken lightly. They’re a tremendous responsibility, so you don’t want them in the wrong hands.”

He added: “But that’s true for any age.”