Firearm Safety and Dementia

If you or a loved one has Alzheimer's or dementia, you may have considered safety issues. These include driving and changes to the home. But have you thought about gun safety? Up to 6 out of 10 US homes have firearms present. So this is an important area of home safety to consider.1

The good news is there are many commonsense, respectful ways to keep everyone safe as dementia progresses.

What could go wrong?

Firearms are sometimes forgotten when planning for a future with dementia.

Having firearms in the home can be dangerous to everyone when a household member has Alzheimer's or dementia. The person may no longer recognize family or friends and think they are intruders who must be stopped. The person may react if they develop paranoia, anger, hostility, or suspect loved ones of harm. These are all common symptoms of Alzheimer's that can make access to guns particularly dangerous.2,3

A once-experienced gun owner may lose the reflexes, quick thinking, and decision-making skills needed to handle a firearm safely. Even if a gun is unloaded, the person with dementia and others can still be harmed.

For example, first responders may not know a gun being pointed at them is unloaded or disabled and respond with tragic results.

Put a plan in place as early as possible

Firearm safety can be a tough topic, especially challenging if the person has a history of gun collecting, hunting, or sport shooting. People may be sentimentally attached to their weapons or feel unsafe without them.

It is better to begin this sensitive discussion early so your loved one can express their wishes and help put a plan in place. If possible, don't wait until you have to decide for them. Keep in mind your plan will need to address current safety issues plus what will be done as dementia gets worse. Some ideas for your talk include:

  • Talk about who might inherit different pieces. You can put it in the context of finding people who can provide necessary upkeep when keeping a gun in good working order has become too much. Your person may be open to giving their guns to someone who can properly maintain and enjoy them.
  • Consider selling valuable firearms and setting the money aside to help pay for care later.
  • Discuss donating antiques so others can learn about historical items.
  • Get agreement ahead of time from everyone involved that when the time comes, firearms will be removed from the home. Appoint someone your person trusts, perhaps a hunting buddy, to be in charge of this move when the time comes.
  • Include people in this discussion that your loved one trusts, respects, and will listen to.

Having an advanced directive in place can be a good way to document what everyone has agreed to for handling firearms now and in the future. Finally, always emphasize that it's the disease, not the person, that is the concern.

You can find a sample of an advanced directive on the Safety in Dementia website.

Options for safe gun ownership with dementia

It can be hard to realize a loved one might be dangerous to themselves or others, but steps must be taken to keep everyone safe. Some options for how to handle guns in the home include:2,3

  1. Keep unloaded guns in a lockbox or gun safe
  2. Disassemble or disable firearms
  3. Move guns to the home of a responsible family member, friend, or neighbor
  4. Store firearms in a locker at a shooting range or gun shop
  5. Gift or sell valuable guns

Each of these options has pros and cons.

In-house storage

A popular first step is to lock guns in a cabinet, lockbox, gun safe, attic, or car trunk, separate from ammunition.

The danger with this option is that the person with dementia may suddenly remember where keys or codes are stored and access those areas. Some cabinets, boxes, and safes may be easier to access than others or too small to hold all firearms in the house.3

Disabling or disassembling guns

Disassembling or disabling a gun may be a good option if your loved one is anxious about not having firearms around.

A local gun shop, firing range, or law enforcement may be able to help you disable a gun if you do not know how. However, unless a gun looks disassembled, others may not realize they cannot be harmed if it is pointed at them.3

Family, friends, or neighbors

Storing firearms with a trusted friend, family member, or neighbor can be a quick and easy way to remove guns from the house. It may help your loved one feel better about parting with their firearms if they feel like they can go visit or use them.3

Gun shop or shooting range storage

Gun shops and shooting ranges sometimes have lockers where firearms can be stored. This may be an especially good option if your loved one has used the shooting range in the past and may still be able to practice shooting with supervision.3

Give away or sell guns

Some people may be open to selling a valuable collection to use the money to pay for their care. Or local law enforcement may have a buyback program.3

When someone is sentimentally attached to a gun, giving it to a special person may be what they prefer. This can be especially true of family heirlooms.3

Other tips when removing guns from the home

When it comes time to remove firearms from the home, there are several steps you can take to make the process easier:2,4

  1. Make sure all guns are unloaded and safe to transport before moving them.
  2. Remove all firearms when the person is not at home, especially if they are no longer able to consent.
  3. Remove all reminders of the collection, including racks, cabinets, cases, ammunition, and holsters.
  4. Be prepared to redirect your person to another activity if they get angry or anxious.
  5. Acknowledge the person's feelings about the loss of their guns.

Regardless of how you and your loved one decide to handle firearms in the home, it is important to keep gun laws and regulations in mind. There may be specific forms or rules you need to follow before moving, gifting, or selling firearms. Each state has different laws, so check first with local law enforcement or a gun retailer before taking action. You may also learn more on your own from:5,6

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