Seniors and Guns: Goldilocks Gun Control


A friend of mine describes the antis’ crusade against specific guns as “Goldilocks” gun control.  This is the idea that some guns are too big (“vest busters”), some guns are too small (“pocket rockets”), some guns don’t have a “sporting purpose” (“assault” weapons), some guns are too cheap (Saturday night specials), etc. ad infinitum. I say ad infinitum instead of ad nauseum because, unlike Goldilocks, the antis will never find the “just right” gun. I see that Johnathon Purtle of Philly.com/Health is now trying to apply this same illogic to the age of gun owners. But of course, this isn’t a matter of discrimination it’s a matter of public health.

Most discussion about the public health implications of the aging of America has focused on issues related to long-term care, chronic medical conditions, and rising health care costs. Now researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are raising another: gun safety.

In their commentary this month in the American Journal of Public Health, Brian Mertens and Susan Sorenson point out that many of the questions that have come up about senior citizens and driving — such as those relating to memory, cognitive impairment, and judgment — apply to firearms, as well.

(I should probably mention here, Mom is 84 and my father passed a few years ago at 82, so I’m not completely unfamiliar with problems associated with aging.)

I must admit this is a new one for me. I have seen this argument the other way around (driving is more complicated than operating a gun) but I have never seen anyone try to argue it the other way. There is a huge difference in the mental acuity needed for driving a car and that needed for using a gun in self-defense. When you are driving a car you must pay continuous attention to conditions around you. You have to look at what other traffic is doing, road hazards, pedestrians, road conditions, street signs, traffic control devices, navigation; all of this must be combined into a gestalt that we call driving a car.

When driving a car on the highway, a lapse of attention lasting only 5 seconds means that your car has traveled 440 feet essentially uncontrolled. Traveling in town that same lapse will last for 220 feet. Either one of these could cause an accident that could wind up hurting or killing people.

Now compare that to carrying a pistol. A 5 second lapse means that you are in Condition White for that period, but that doesn’t translate to 10 bodies strewn across a farmer’s market. Memory, cognitive impairment and judgment do indeed apply to firearms, but so what? If you don’t remember how to unsafe your weapon then you’re not going to shoot someone. Cognitive impairment and judgment? If you are too gaga to be able to differentiate between a deadly threat and a mother pushing a stroller then you shouldn’t be walking the streets alone regardless of whether you are armed or not.

It all boils down to that David Codrea quote I keep using: If someone can’t be trusted with a firearm then they can’t be trusted without a custodian. JP continues:

A mound of evidence tells us that risk of violent death increases immediately after the purchase of a handgun — mostly due to suicides and accidents — and remains high for at least five years.  This risk, however, is particularly high among those age 65 and older.

Well who’d-a thunk it. Someone who wants to commit suicide is going to obtain the means to do it before they, well, actually do it. But again that is completely irrelevant because numerous studies have shown that overall suicide rates are independent of method. When Canada put strict controls on firearms, firearm suicides dropped. Yay! But non-firearm suicides went up enough to more than make up the difference.

And I wouldn’t tout that “mound of evidence” too loudly JP, since most of those “studies” have been thoroughly debunked. More guns lead to more suicides? That must be why virtually gun-free Japan’s suicide rate so much lower than ours, right? Oh, wait. And if more guns cause more homicides, then why is the UK’s non-firearm homicide rate so much lower than ours? Again, cultural and societal differences.

On top of all that is the simple fact that correlation does not equal causation. In fact many of the authors of those studies made just that point when they attacked Dr. Lott’s “more guns, less crime” thesis, saying that it was impossible to account for all the different factors which went into crime rates and stating repeatedly that correlation does not necessarily show causation.

As for firearm accident rates among seniors, according to the CDC’s data from 1999 through 2009, the accidental death rate due to firearms was 0.21 per 100,000. Keep that number in mind, it’ll be important later. But let’s break out a table of comparisons, shall we?

Accident Type Avg. Annual Deaths Deaths per 100K
Falls 14,944 40.79
Suffocation 3,261 8.90
Car Passenger 3,028 8.27
Pedestrian 1,245 3.40
Fire/Burn 1,146 3.13
Poisoning 960 2.62
Residential Fire 950 2.59
Environmental 655 1.79
Drowning 452 1.23
Firearms 76 0.21
Cut/Pierce 39 0.11

Hmm, maybe guns in their homes aren’t what we need to be really worried about vis-à-vis our seasoned citizens.

JP continues with some information on gun ownership:

Survey research indicates that 37 percent of people 65 and older live in a home with a firearm, compared with 26 percent of those younger than 30.  The authors of the commentary article note that many people cite protection as a key reason to buy firearms.

Survey research done on the CDC’s WISQARS website by your humble scrivener indicates that people younger than 30 have an accidental firearm death rate of . . . I’m just going to do another table.

 

Cause of Death Rate for under 30 Rate for 65 and older
Gun Accident 0.26 0.21
Gun Homicide 5.39 0.83

I excluded suicides because, again, suicide rates are independent of method. So when we look at the facts we see that, even though 42% more seniors than under-30s have access to guns, seniors have lower rates of deaths from accidents and homicides. Sort of stands that whole “guns cause__________” argument on its head.

But JP tells us why senior citizens really don’t need to be able to protect themselves:

While one might think it makes sense for senior citizens, in particular, to arm themselves against criminals, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the risk of being a victim of robbery, rape, or violent assault is substantially lower among the elderly than any other age group (2.4 of every 1,000 people age 65 and over experience such a crime  annually, compared with rates of 10.9  per 1,000 for people ages 50-64 and 26.9 per 1,000 for ages 21-24).

Did you catch that? Two paragraphs before, JP finds the firearm accident rate among seniors significant, but here a violent crime rate ten times as high is brushed off as the veriest bagatelle. And why doesn’t he include murder in with the crimes against seniors? Is it so low as to be negligible? HA! The homicide rate per 100,000 among those 65 and older is 2.29 which would make the violent crime rate against seniors TWENTY times as high as the accidental death rate he finds significant above.

And I don’t care how much lower crime rates against XYZ demographic are: the freedom to own and carry the weapon of your choice is a natural, fundamental, and inalienable human, individual, civil, and Constitutional right — subject neither to the democratic process nor to arguments grounded in social utility.[1] And since a gun is the most effective and safest self-defense tool in existence I believe it borders on the criminal to try to disarm some of the most physically vulnerable among us.

But JP doesn’t blame seniors for not thinking straight; it is all the fault of the Eee-vil Gun Industry®, as he explains:

Nevertheless, the firearm industry has tried to take advantage of seniors’ fears and developed guns specifically for people with arthritis and mobility limitations.

I see, so JP is opposed to the ADA and making reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities? So would he do away with walkers and wheelchairs too? But why the hell shouldn’t a paraplegic be able to defend him or herself? What does he have against people whose hands are so arthritic that they can’t even hold, much less fire a pistol? Is it wrong for companies to look at a growing demographic and try to fill a perceived need? JP continues with either some outright lies or just plain ignorance:

The maker of one such weapon tried to register it as a medical device in hopes that Medicare would pay for it — a proposal that the Food and Drug Administration rejected.

Actually what happened was the maker wanted to start advertising to seniors so he called his friendly neighborhood FDA office and was advised to register his company, Constitution Arms, as a medical device facility and list the Palm Pistol as a “recreational adaptor.” Remember boys and girls, the federal government is not bound by the statements of its employees. Better still, the FDA initially approved the device. It was only when word of the approval hit the ‘net that they rapidly backpedaled.  So JP, don’t try to blame a manufacturer for doing as some gov’t bureaucrats advised him.

Next JP falls back on platitudes:

There is no easy solution to the issue of firearm safety among older adults.  According to Penn’s Sorenson, “We need to consider multiple options that address multiple aspects. Possibilities include reducing access to firearms, especially for the cognitively impaired, increasing neighborhood safety and household security, and improving health care options for those with chronic debilitating illnesses.”

There is too an easy solution: teach seniors the Four Rules and, until they become so cognitively impaired that they can’t remember them, bugger off! Do you want to increase neighborhood safety? Arm the neighbors and teach them how to use their weapons.

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends that individuals with Alzheimer’s should not handle, or have access to, guns. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has produced informative materials on dementia and firearm safety, as well, indicating that it sees the issue as a cause for concern.

Some people might have a hard time believing this, but I actually agree; people who are suffering from dementia to the extent that they can’t live on their own should not try to and should not have access to guns. But JP then veers off into another world again:

Anyone who has tried to convince an elderly parent to stop driving knows how difficult  such conversations can be.  And cars don’t carry the emotional, cultural and political power that firearms do — especially when the subject is whether or not to take away Grandpa’s gun.

Seriously? You think that telling a senior that they are no longer independent, that from now on they have to rely on others to take them shopping or to the beauty parlor, or out to a restaurant or a movie or a play or to watch the fireworks on Independence Day, does not carry powerful emotional, cultural or political freight?

Do you have an older loved one who owns firearms? Do you worry about his safety, or the safety of others? Have you addressed it?

When Mom and Dad lived out on the farm, I did worry a bit about their safety. They were 3/4 of a mile from the nearest neighbor and 25 miles from the nearest cop shop. But Dad had a pistol in the nightstand and a shotgun in the closet which made me feel a lot better. Same with mom’s parents. They lived out in the boonies and would have been extremely vulnerable to a home invasion if they hadn’t had 1) a good alarm system and 2) my grandfather’s .38 in his nightstand.

If you have an older loved one with access to guns whose mind is so far gone that you worry about their safety or the safety of others, then those loved ones should not have access to firearms, to matches, electricity, stoves, gasoline, hammers . . . you get the picture.

In other words, if your loved one can’t be trusted with a gun then they can’t be trusted without a custodian.

comments

  1. avatar Chas says:

    Anyone who thinks I’m too old to own a firearm can get off my lawn.

  2. avatar GS650G says:

    I’d like to see the age rule applied to politicians. Send Robert Byrd was way too old to be in the Senate, Strom Thurmond the same. They were totally out of it their last year or two.

    1. avatar Ben Eli says:

      Amen. Any calls for the disarmament of our elders needs to be met with unilateral age restrictions. Like Codrea said, “If someone can’t be trusted with a firearm then they can’t be trusted without a custodian.” In my mind thats the best thing to do. People will gladly jump for the idea of taking away guns from elders, but as soon as you start restricting finances, movements, and other basic freedoms, people will back off.
      Too many consider rights to be privileges, and privileges to be rights.
      And too be honest, Sen. Strom Thurmond was too old to be senator the day he was sworn in.

      1. avatar GS650G says:

        And old people vote. Even when they are dead.

  3. avatar bontai Joe says:

    My dad is 77 years old, his driving, especially at night isn’t the best, but he still shoots trap twice a week. My mom is 76 and she doesn’t get around real well, but is fully capable of handling her pistol. She is the one that taught me to shoot, so I’m not about to tell her that she can’r have a gun in her house, not until she becomes infirm mentally to the point that I can’t trust her with the stove, or plugging in appliances.

  4. avatar Joe C. says:

    Seniors and guns are fine. Heroin addicts that want to play William Tell with their wife fall into another category.

    1. avatar pair-o-dee says:

      Picking and choosing the allowable freedoms always leads to tragedy. Though I did think his writing was mostly crap.

  5. avatar Tom says:

    When Mom and Dad lived out on the farm, I did worry a bit about their safety. They were 3/4 of a mile from the nearest neighbor and 25 miles from the nearest cop shop. But Dad had a pistol in the nightstand and a shotgun in the closet which made me feel a lot better. Same with mom’s parents. They lived out in the boonies and would have been extremely vulnerable to a home invasion if they hadn’t had 1) a good alarm system and 2) my grandfather’s .38 in his nightstand.

    Used to be most and maybe all people in rural areas at least had a repeating or double barreled shotgun.

  6. avatar Tom says:

    People under 30 tend to treat guns as a toy and they really did not grow up with them. Older people tended to usually have been around firearms more in some capacity.

  7. avatar Ralph says:

    If loss of memory, cognitive impairment, and poor judgment were disqualifiers, we wouldn’t have a Senate.

    1. avatar Henry Bowman says:

      It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

  8. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    They (the gun banners) have been trying to couch gun control in public health terms since the early 90’s. They’d like us to believe that you “catch” gun violence the same way you’d contract the clap: socializing with the wrong element of people.

    Attempts to take guns away from seniors based on some “medical” notion of competence immediately calls into what other rights we could deny said seniors judged incapable of bearing arms. Voting, perhaps? Oh, the AARP would love that. Owning a vehicle? Or a stepladder? Or keeping their money in any financial instrument more complicated than a cookie jar?

    See, if we grant them their notion, our job is to reinforce the fact that the SCOTUS has now ruled that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right. If they want to take away one Constitutional right, then it is our job to ask “How many others can/should/will we take away?”

    And suddenly they’re the ones on the defensive.

  9. avatar ChrisJ says:

    “firearm accident rate among seniors significant, but here a violent crime rate ten times as high is brushed off as the veriest bagatelle. ”

    If the numbers presented were copied correctly, it’s WAY more than 10x, that’s

    0.21 per 100K
    versus
    2.4 per 1K

    …keeping shifting that decimal place over, that’s several orders of magnitude difference!

  10. avatar Joel says:

    maybe he got the “accidental death by firearms” and “violent assault ” death numbers for seniors switched up…

  11. avatar Brandon says:

    The funny this is that when that picture was taken W.B. was 32.

    1. avatar NeonCat says:

      He should definitely be part of a Historic Idiotic Gun Owner of the Day series.

  12. avatar Michael B. says:

    Great article, Bruce!

  13. avatar Levi B says:

    Third anti-gun person/group I’ve seen talk about limiting senior citizens’ access to guns based on age recently. I assume it’s not a new tactic.

  14. avatar Ydneas says:

    Excellent piece, Bruce. Thanks for taking the time to dissect the argument and thoroughly debunk it. Rights activists, take note: this is how you conclusively win arguments.

    Articles like this, and the existence of TTAG, make it hard to paint gun owners with the (uneducated / reactionary / fear-mongering / bigot / racist / sexist / what you have you) brush.

  15. avatar Brad says:

    I generally feel better knowing that my family members, including my grandparents, are armed. There’s always a possibility they might need them and the elderly are even more vulnerable than most. A healthy adult could possibly outrun or even outfight an assailant. My grandmother definitely could not.

    That being said, it is worth remembering that the elderly may reach a point where they can’t be trusted to make the judgment calls of a responsible gun owner. My grandfather has advanced Alzheimer’s. He has a completely altered reality and wakes up in the middle of the night not knowing where he is and believing that he has been taken from his home by strangers. I’m glad there’s no .38 in his nightstand any more.

    My great-uncle, similarly, went into a rapid mental decline that turned into paranoia. He became convinced his wife of 40 years was cheating on him and he developed a tendency to go for his rifles after particularly violent outbursts. His sons had to take his guns away from him.

    Just a few months ago there was a shooting near my hometown that was appallingly tragic. An older woman (I believe the couple was in their 60s) for some reason had gone outside in the middle of the night and locked herself out. She began banging on the door and woke her husband who, presumably horribly confused by the commotion, shot and killed her through the door. He did nothing to ascertain the threat, to know who he was shooting. He panicked and made a terrible judgment call that a reasonable gun owner in his right mind would not. It’s tragic for both of them, but even moreso for him. He has to live what little life he has left haunted by the memories of his wife and how she ended by a mistake at his hands.

    None of these examples mean that the elderly should have to give up their guns just because they’re old. They DO show, however, that people can reach a point where they no longer have the mental capacity to responsibly own a firearm. In the vast part that call should be left to the family, who will know the situation best. In some extreme cases it may be up to the police, and in the cases of advanced mental degradation such as Alzheimer’s there is certainly a point where a person is no longer mentally sound and it would be unsafe for him or her to continue to have a gun nearby. Elderly men and women with their wits still about them (my great-grandfather lived to be 95 and with the exception of a few fender benders was still perfectly capable to the day he died) can be responsible gun owners just like anyone else. When they can’t tell the difference between simple objects around them and don’t recognize people they have known half their lives, they have no more business holding a firearm than an untrained and unsupervised toddler on a playground.

    1. avatar Ralph says:

      people can reach a point where they no longer have the mental capacity to responsibly own a firearm.

      Which can happen at any age. In fact, some people are born that way. I’d trust an old-timer with judgment a lot more than a thirty-something with a blue uniform.

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