Guns and Dementia

Q. My elderly father is often confused and agitated.  I am concerned because he has loaded guns in the house.  What can I do?

A. Short of bringing a protective or guardianship action, I suggest you consider addressing the matter with your father’s doctor.   Possibly you have a health care power of attorney for your Dad that would allow you to speak with the doctor directly, but if not write the doctor a letter about your concerns.   HIPPA laws may prevent the doctor and his or her staff from talking with you, but he/she is not restricted in receiving information on his/her client from an outside source.

A Kaiser Foundation Health News investigation done with PBS News Hour published a report in 2017 that covered over 100 cases in the US since 2012 in which people with dementia used guns to kill themselves or others.  Shooters often acted during bouts of confusion, paranoia, delusion or aggression – common symptoms of dementia.  Children, spouses and caregivers were killed in addition to unintentional self-harm and a large number of suicides.

This is a highly political issue and some people feel they have a right to live life on their own terms or opt to die rather than suffer mental regression or acute, chronic pain.  While there may be no reason for a doctor to address gun ownership, loaded guns matter with someone fully competent, if a diagnosis of dementia or poorly controlled mental illness is suspected, just some minor questions investigating simple safety issues might provide enough red flags to justify a written diagnosis and further action as part of a probate court or DSS protective action.

People with dementia typically lack insight into their problems.  It’s not just lack of memory, but also sound decision-making.  Cognitive problems are not an inherent part of aging.  Adult children are often uncomfortable with role reversal and are reluctant to take the initiative in dealing with a parent by taking away the car keys, removing ammo from loaded guns, locking guns in a gun safe with a combination, and addressing a parent’s depression.  If confronted your Father may state, “I have never misused my firearms … It’s not a problem.”  But he is remembering his past history, he can’t predict the future and does not recognize his current unstable behavior.  Sometimes it is helpful to talk to the parent about “retiring or gifting” their guns, as opposed to taking them away.  You may be acting against the parent’s will, but it has to be done for the parent’s safety, the safety of others and everyone’s peace of mind.  The web has story after story of a husband or father holding himself up in a locked room with a loaded gun not recognizing the other people in the house as family, actually shooting spouses and other family members.

It is not always just a matter of gifting a gun to another family member.  Some states have very strict laws on gun conveyance.  And of course felons and those on probation cannot possess guns

If a person in South Carolina has been adjudicated as in need on a guardian or conservatorship or a mental defective or committed to a mental institution, then it is unlawful for that person to ship, transport, possess or receive a fire arm or ammunition.  A petitioning family member will be provided with a written copy of this law at the hearing when he or she is appointed as guardian or conservator.  Part of your responsibility and obligation to protect your love one requires you to remove the ammo and guns from the ward’s access.   In addition to being found guilty of a felony, there is a mandatory fine and possible jail time.  If necessary said fire arms and ammunition can be confiscated and delivered to the chief of police or local sheriff’s department.

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends removing the guns from the home, not just locking up the ammo separate from the guns.  It’s no different than taking away the car keys when a parent is no longer safe to drive.  The NRA Institute for Legislative Action has information on each state’s law.

Disclaimer:  Information contained in this column is meant to be of general information on frequently asked questions concerning disability, elder law, estate planning and probate law, and does not contain specific legal advice to a client.  No attorney-client relationship is created by reading this column.     1/2019

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