Grandma and Guns: Families Confront Dementia and Firearms

Grandma and Guns: Families Confront Dementia and Firearms

Dee Hill begged the 911 dispatcher for help. “My husband accidentally shot me in the stomach”. A few feet away, her 76-year old husband, Darrell, a former police chief and county sheriff, sat in his wheelchair with a discharged Glock on the table in front of him, completely unaware that he’d nearly killed his wife of nearly 60 years. Darrell had been diagnosed two years earlier with a form of progressive dementia that had quickly stripped him of reasoning and memory. His wife needed 30 pints of blood, three surgeries and seven weeks in the hospital to survive.

She sold her husband’s car when it became too dangerous for him to drive, yet never removed his guns

Many of us these days are helping our aging parents with a wide range of issues, and a troubling problem that’s getting more attention is aging gun owners with dementia. This scenario describes a disturbing situation that may be more common than we think. Gun owners steadfastly refuse to part with their weapons, even as they lose the ability to reason and make sound decisions.

Darrell Hill was unaware that he’d nearly killed his wife

“He was almost obsessive about seeing and caring for his guns.” Darrell accidentally knocked the pouch that had held the revolver to the floor. When Dee bent to pick it up, he grabbed the Glock and fired. “My concern had been that someone was going to get hurt. I didn’t in my wildest dreams think it was going to be me.” The incident was classified as an assault. Dee was outraged at the suggestion she consider pressing charges. Gun advocates insist that guns are not to blame.

America’s tragedy of gun violence kills 96 people/day

There’s a vast cache of firearms in the homes of aging Americans with impaired/declining mental faculties. When Darrell Hill died in 2016, he joined the estimated 9 percent of Americans 65 and older diagnosed with dementia, many of whom are gun owners and fierce supporters of Second Amendment rights. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey shows that 45% of people 65 and older have guns in their homes.

No one tracks the potentially deadly intersection of these groups

A four-month Kaiser Health News investigation uncovered more than 100 cases across the U.S. in which people with dementia used guns to kill or injure themselves or others. Kaiser’s research found 15 homicides and more than 95 suicides since 2012.The shooters often acted during bouts of confusion, paranoia, delusion or aggression — common symptoms of dementia. They killed people closest to them–their caregivers, wives, sons or daughters. They shot at people they happened to encounter–the mailman, a police officer.

Keep in mind that these statistics do not begin to tally incidents in which a person with dementia waves a gun at an unsuspecting neighbor or a terrified home-health aide.

Few topics are as polarizing as gun control and second amendment rights

Gun control is a politically polarizing topic. Only five states have laws allowing families to petition a court to temporarily seize guns from people who exhibit dangerous behavior.

What families can do: Take a gun owner to court to evaluate competency

Federal law prohibits people who are not mentally competent to make their own decisions, including those with advanced dementia, from buying or owning firearms. Unfortunately, a diagnosis of dementia does not disqualify someone from owning a gun. If a gun owner were reluctant to give up his/her arsenal, the family would typically have to take that person to court to evaluate competency.

We’re seeing a small change. Since February’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., more states are taking action to make it easier for families to remove guns from their homes.

Changes ahead for the NRA?

The NRA, traditionally one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, is experiencing tougher times. Many big brands are severing ties with the company. If the Democrats take back the House and Senate in the midterm elections, gun reform well may become a reality.

Can California lead the way?

California has some of the most stringent gun laws in the country and is intent on eliminating severely restricted weapons by making their transfer nearly impossible.

  • Anyone found by the courts to be mentally defective or those committed to a mental institution cannot own firearms.
  • This includes those deemed by a court to be a danger to others, mentally disordered sex offenders and those found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
  • It also includes those in custody because they present a danger to themselves or others, individuals undergoing intensive treatment for mental illness and those placed in a conservatorship.

Ultimately, it’s up to every family to take away the guns

In my own family, it was the car keys. Our stepfather was a terrible driver and had been for years. Many of us wouldn’t ride with him. Yet none of us would stand up to him and take away the keys. We could have found a way, but we didn’t want to create an incident. In retrospect, a family fight is nothing compared to the chaos and tragedy of an accident.

Helping family members with end-of-life planning is a challenge for many Bay Area families

California Document Preparers assists families with our comprehensive Living Trust package that includes a Power of Attorney and an Advanced Healthcare Directive. Contact California Document Preparers at one of our three Bay Area offices to schedule an appointment or find out how we work with our clients. We’re helpful, compassionate and affordable.