There’s still a sense of shock in Paul Schnell’s voice when he talks about two murders that happened in the suburban community of Maplewood, where he served as police chief.
Both involved an elderly parent shooting an adult child after arguments about what was on television — or what wasn’t. Kenneth Bowser, then 90, meant only to scare his son Larry on the night of Sept. 12, 2015, but killed him instead with a pistol he’d kept under his pillow. Eighteen months before that, 84-year-old Pang Se Vang fatally wounded his 36-year-old son after the son refused to install cable television.
“The part that was really striking is that this wasn’t just a one-off,’’ said Schnell, now police chief in Inver Grove Heights, of the two elderly perpetrators. “As more and more people are trying to stay in their homes as long as they can, nobody is thinking about the presence of those guns and the extent to which that becomes a problem. This is going to become a very real issue as the population ages.’’
Schnell’s assessment is astute. The coming collision of a graying demographic wave, the memory problems inherent in aging and the prevalence of gun ownership is a looming but under-the-radar public health hazard. That is why “Unlocked and Loaded: Families Confront Dementia and Guns,” a recent special report from a Kaiser Health News and PBS NewsHour partnership, has provided a valuable public service.
The debate over gun control sparked by the horrifying pace of school shootings has understandably focused on preventing the next attack in public places. But the Kaiser team’s deep reporting shows that harm can happen in private spaces as well. Acknowledging a major risk factor in that setting — age-related cognitive decline — and being pro-active on personal and policy fronts just makes sense. These alarming statistics underscore the urgency of taking action:
• A third of adults age 65 and older own firearms. An additional 12 percent live with a gun owner.
• About 9 percent of Americans 65 and older have dementia.
• About a third of people with dementia “exhibit combative behavior over the course of their illness.”
The four-month Kaiser team investigation found 15 homicides and at least 95 suicides since 2012 involving people with dementia and firearms. The reporters had to sift through public records and news reports to compile the numbers because dementia-related shooting deaths are apparently not tracked comprehensively by public health officials. Some critics in the report blamed this on political pressure “quashing” research into gun violence.
Schnell’s law enforcement experience illuminates the risk beyond the Kaiser team statistics. He recalled an elderly gardener in Maplewood who became upset when deer ate his hostas. The man shot at them in frustration, missing the hungry woodland creatures but hitting a neighbor’s garage instead.
Thankfully, no one was hurt and his family limited future gun use to hunting trips — a sensible step that illustrates caregivers’ responsibility to prevent gun injuries. When to take the car keys away from an aging loved one is a conversation that caregivers know they’ll need to have. Conversations around when to lock up guns or remove them from the home ought to become just as common.
From a policy standpoint, enacting a “red flag” law in Minnesota would help reduce the risk of dementia-related shootings. This would “allow law enforcement and family members to petition the court to keep guns away from those who pose a significant danger to themselves or other, or who have court-protection,’’ according to a February Star Tribune editorial that advocated for legislation to do exactly this during the 2018 session.
Regrettably, the bill, HF 1605, failed to gain traction even as other states passed these protections. But its lead author, Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, should press on. Keeping elders and their communities safe is a worthy goal Minnesotans ought to be able to agree on.