U.S. Needs Tougher Gun Laws to Stop Dementia Patients Killing Themselves and Others, Scientists Warn

The U.S. must introduce laws to prevent dementia patients from owning guns, or we could see a rise in suicides and accidental shootings, scientists warned.

In an article published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, researchers pored over existing data on gun ownership, age and disability, and noted that older adults were more likely to own guns than any other age group. They were also more likely to encounter age-related dementia.

According to 2016 figures cited by the authors, an estimated 5.4 million adults in the U.S. have Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia. By 2050, that figure is expected to hit 13.8 million. This could spark a public health crisis if gun owners who lose their mental faculties aren't monitored, the researchers said.

At 27 percent, people aged 65 or over have the highest rate of firearm ownership in the U.S., while 37 percent live in a home with a gun. One study in patients with dementia referred to by the authors showed 18 percent had at least one firearm in their home, with 37 percent experiencing delusions and 17 percent suffering hallucinations. A separate piece of research showed 60 percent of homes where a person with dementia (whether mild or severe) lived contained at least one gun.

A group of scientists said that laws around gun ownership for dementia sufferers were not tight enough. Getty Images

The authors presented a case study of an 80-year-old African-American man with Alzheimer's disease as well as other health conditions. The man became confused, mistook his aide as an intruder and fatally shot her.

Families often alert an older adult's doctor if they are worried they cannot safely drive, take their medication or use the stove, the authors explained. "Yet the issue of access to a firearm is not often discussed among older adults, their children, and the health care provider. The ability to handle a firearm safely in the past may not assure the ability to do so in the face of dementia, physical disability, or psychiatric illness," they wrote.

Katherine Galluzzi, chair of the department of geriatrics at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and a study author, commented, "Nothing about this is easy. People's identities are formed in large part by the ways and degree to which they can feel self-sufficient. That doesn't end with the onset of dementia.

"However, as physicians and family members, we need to be able to do the hard thing in the interest of public safety."

One such example was Booker Moody, 72, fatally shot his granddaughter, 19-year-old Jordan Williams.

Moody's daughter Traci Brown told ABC 6 at the time: "My dad is 72 years old, he got dementia so he don't remember. If he don't remember, he don't remember. I know personally if he knew it was her he wouldn't have killed her."

Researchers suggested red flag laws, whereby families could ask a judge to revoke gun ownership from a person who may pose a risk to themselves or others due to their mental health.

Doctors can do their bit, too, by opening up conversations about mental illness and gun ownership at home among families.

Galluzzi said, "Whether it's a question of taking away a person's car or gun, these difficult discussions don't get easier as the patient's mental state deteriorates.

"It's critical for families to talk about this early and decide on power of attorney so someone can act in the best interest of the patient when they are no longer able to do it for themselves."