Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Grandparents and guns: A novel public health concern

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.

Grandparents and guns: A novel public health concern

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. (AP Photo / Kiichiro Sato)
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. (AP Photo / Kiichiro Sato)

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.

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.

That demographic currently accounts for 13 percent of the population, the largest in U.S. history, and is projected to grow to 20 percent by 2050. Gun ownership is also disproportionately high among older adults. 

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. 

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).

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

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.”

 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.

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.

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?


Read more about The Public's Health.

About this blog
Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Jonathan Purtle, MPH Doctoral candidate and Research Associate, Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, Drexel University
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
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