A relative taught me to drive in a burgundy Lincoln Town Car in an empty Long Island parking lot in the 1980s. After emphasizing the need to practice driving in reverse, he also warned: “A car is a weapon. You can kill someone, or get killed, in an instant.” I am a safer driver (forwards and backwards) thanks to his warning.
This relative had purchased several handguns over the years. He moved to Virginia with his wife; years later, they relocated to New Jersey to be nearer their family. He came back north in a black Lincoln, toting a little black briefcase that never left his side. He never let us touch that bag.
Now he suffers from dementia and uses a wheelchair. A home health aide poking around in his closets discovered three weapons in a camera case, with a cache of bullets in their magazines. By the time of the firearms’ discovery, I had become responsible for his care and had power of attorney.
When Guns Exceed Their Owners’ “Shelf-Life”
An NPR poll recently found that Americans’ support of gun control is at a near-record high. The Parkland shooting and other mass shootings have, in turn, led to Americans changing their minds about owning guns. One man even posted a video of himself sawing apart his AR-15.
Some people have had such changes of heart, but some have not. A New York Times article highlights the risks—to themselves and those around them—of the elderly owning firearms. It cites a new CDC report showing that rates of suicide rose 25 percent between 1999 and 2016 and that for men over 65, firearms are the suicide method of choice. For men of all ages with known mental health conditions, firearms were used in 41 percent of the incidents where the owner took his own life.
Clearly, I really needed to get rid of my relative’s guns.
The nation has 300 million–plus guns; they’re easy enough to get. I soon learned how hard it is to remove them from circulation—and how little we know about who owns guns, or where.
While gun dealers rarely lose their licenses after violations such as selling to felons, I met obstacles at every turn when I sought to have my relative’s guns destroyed lawfully. The desk officer at his local police department said I would need to show the licenses for all three guns, adding “You can’t just dump your guns here.”
I turned up just one license. After two weeks of calling police departments in New York, New Jersey and Virginia and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, I was routinely waking up in the middle of the night, distraught about the guns. Finally a detective from my relative’s New Jersey police precinct returned my call late on a Sunday afternoon. I could bring the guns in for destruction if I presented my relative’s identification and my power of attorney.
I went to the precinct immediately. In the detective’s office, he removed the guns from the case and quickly emptied the bullets from their magazines onto his desk. They formed a shiny gold mountain. I had never had direct contact with a gun or ammunition, and was slightly freaked out. I took photos for my records.
Next, he searched for my relative’s name in the New Jersey database, and found nothing. I naively inquired about a national registry that might help us track down the licenses in New York or Virginia. He looked at me in disbelief. “We only track guns when they’re used in a crime. We don’t keep records of innocent people. This is America.” Federal law, it turns out, doesn’t require licensing of guns owners or purchases, and just 13 states require licenses to buy or own guns.
After the guns, magazines and bullets were bagged and locked, I was led downstairs to file a complaint and sign an affidavit. I asked how the police were going to destroy the guns and was told the county would be responsible for that. Another detective told me the guns were worth around $1,800. While the cash would have come in handy, I still wanted them destroyed.
The Need for Data
I’m a medical school researcher; I deal in data and evidence. Without data, uncertainty, conjecture and ignorance flourish. That was precisely the intent of the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which quashed the Centers for Disease Control’s funding of gun-violence research. Thus, while the licenses of “problem drivers” are tracked—as are motor vehicle fatalities—the muzzle on national data on guns and gun owners thwarts rigorous study. This leaves researchers without the basic tools of epidemiology—case-counting and analyses of risk and protective factors—with which to understand gun violence and its impact on human health.
A 2015 Washington Post article demonstrates why, like cars, guns should be tracked and studied. It examines why death rates from both sources are now roughly the same. The 65-year decline in motor vehicle deaths came not from “hopes and prayers,” but from improved technology and smarter regulation. I can’t see why we don’t treat guns as we do cars, the way other countries do: by requiring written and performance tests, licensing, registration and insurance. Already, there is evidence that regulations, education and reduced gun ownership can result in fewer gun deaths. Accidental deaths have decreased by 48 percent; experts attribute this to stronger regulations, better training and decreased ownership. And the decrease in accidental deaths has been greatest in states with the fewest guns and the strongest laws.
The National Rifle Association and politicians it contributes to see any safety measures as threats to their bottom line, just as automakers did before the publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed in the 1960s. As a public health measure, we need better regulation of guns, but we also need to make it easier for family members and reluctant gun owners to dispose of weapons so that we can be sure they don’t hurt someone.
As my relative said, “A car is a weapon.” So is a gun; we should treat them the same way.