Ballistics by the inch

Reprise: When is it Time to Take Away the Keys to the Gun Cabinet? — Alzheimer’s and Gun Ownership

Prompted by my friends over at the Liberal Gun Club, this is another in an occasional series of revisiting some of my old articles which had been published elsewhere over the years, perhaps lightly edited or updated with my current thoughts on the topic discussed. This is an article I wrote for, and it originally ran 7/29/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


I’m not an expert on geriatrics. Nor do I have any formal training in psychology, therapy, or law. But I did just publish a book about being a care-provider for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, so I guess that gives me at least a little cred to address a very difficult subject: age-related mental decline and guns.

This is a hard topic to talk about. We all want to respect our elders, to acknowledge that they have more experience, perhaps more wisdom than we do. There’s a good chance that this issue concerns an aging parent, someone who perhaps even taught you how to safely handle a firearm. Or maybe it’s an aunt/uncle. Or even a spouse. Someone you care for. Someone you don’t want to see hurt.

Here’s a passage from the introduction to a chapter in my book discussing this:

Adults, almost by definition, are responsible for their own decisions and choices. And when you’re dealing with someone who you respect – someone you love – who had a long history of being a responsible adult, there is a natural reluctance to take that responsibility away. Even when it is clear that they are no longer capable of responsibility. Or even rational decisions.

There’s a whole range of ways this plays out. There are myriad legal and ethical considerations. Should the Alzheimer’s patient still be in charge of their own finances? Should she still be driving? Is she capable of signing legal documents?

Those are the big ones, but it’s the small ones which are harder. Harder on you, and on the patient. You don’t want to take away anything prematurely. Like decisions about what to wear. Or what to eat. Or what to read. Or even when to go to the bathroom. Each of those steps seems to be a diminishing, a loss of adulthood, even a loss of dignity.

This problem is most commonly seen in the “when do we take the car keys away?” question, which usually comes up well before someone has traveled very far along the road to dementia. And many states have mechanisms in place to address it – by requiring people over a given age to take driving tests, or putting the onus on doctors to report when a patient should no longer be driving. But to the best of my knowledge, there is no mechanism in place in any state that addresses the question of aging as it relates to gun ownership. So this is left up to the friends and families.

As I think it should be, ideally. The problem is that too often those friends and family members are unwilling to have that hard conversation. Going back to the matter of driving, I have known people who would refuse to allow their own children or spouse to ride with an elderly person who was still driving, and yet were still not willing to discuss the matter with said elderly person. Yeah, they were willing to risk the life of the elderly person in question, as well as strangers on the road, when they knew full well that the person should not still be driving. All because they were unwilling to have an uncomfortable conversation and perhaps intervene.

So, when should you have that very difficult discussion?

Preferably, before it becomes an issue. Well before. If it is someone you respect, then it is someone you should be able to talk with about this in a non-confrontational way, well in advance of any problem. Ask them if they have thought about it – the chances are, it has crossed their mind. Put it in terms of “Have you thought about this? How are you going to handle it?” Because that shows that they are the ones still in control, and that you respect their decision. See what they have to say.

What if things are already past that point? Well, then it depends. If they are not very far along the road, then you may still be able to talk with them about the matter (many different kinds of age-related dementia manifest sporadically, with periods when the person is more lucid than others). Try it, see what you think. With luck, you can gain their cooperation in making a decision. If that goes well, then there’s no problem.

If it doesn’t go well? Then you have some very hard choices to make. First, are you in a position where you can act legally (that is, do you have Power of Attorney?) or can work with whoever is legally responsible for the well-being of this person? If so, then you have to decide whether the person is safe with access to firearms or not. If so, chances are you can just make plans for them for the future when/if their mental condition deteriorates.

If they’re not safe having guns around? Then you have to do something about that. “Lose” the keys to the safe/trigger locks. “Clean” the guns and remove the firing pin. Persuade them that the time has come for them to pass their guns on to others who will cherish them. Something. If they are no longer capable of being responsible, then you have to be responsible for them.

And if you are not in a position to act legally? Then talk with the person who is. Tell them your concerns. Offer to help them, particularly if the responsible party is someone who doesn’t understand firearms. They may not know what to do and will welcome your help. It’s heartbreaking to hear of someone turning an heirloom or collector’s piece over to a police “gun buy-back” program, where it’ll just be destroyed.

Lastly, for all of us who are of a certain age – start thinking now what should be done with your firearms in the event that you start to suffer from mental deterioration due to age or illness. Who can you trust to see things objectively, perhaps come to you with some hard questions? Talk to that person, preferably now. Put something in writing, perhaps in your Will. It’ll save everyone a lot of heartache later.


It’s been six years since that piece was published, and there is very little else I would add to it. I’m glad to see that this topic has gained some attention recently, as it deserves it.

Above all, I’d say be sensitive. But also be willing to have that difficult conversation before tragedy strikes.


Jim Downey

PS: the first of each month I make Her Final Year available for free download from Amazon. Please feel free to share that with anyone who may benefit from it.


September 17, 2017 Posted by | Discussion. | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reprise: Give in to the Power of the Dark Side — Converting Non-shooters

Prompted by my friends over at the Liberal Gun Club, this is another in an occasional series of revisiting some of my old articles which had been published elsewhere over the years, perhaps lightly edited or updated with my current thoughts on the topic discussed. This is an article I wrote for, and it originally ran 8/5/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


I swear, sometimes I feel like a Sith Lord.

Friends and acquaintances will find out that I’m “into” guns. We’ll be chatting and there will be this odd moment where I can see it in their eyes: attraction, mixed with not a little fear.

If they know me at all, either through interaction or by reputation, they probably have a certain expectation. I’m a professional book & document conservator. I used to own a big art gallery. For years I wrote a column about the arts for the local newspaper. I even gained some small measure of fame as a conceptual artist.  I was the primary care-provider for my elderly mother-in-law, and have been praised for my gentleness and compassion. I’ve published two books, and am working to complete a third. Based on that, they have probably put me into a nice little box in their mental map of the world.

That I am a gun owner, someone with a CCW, and even one of the principals behind the world’s premier handgun ballistics resource usually comes as a bit of a surprise.


Yes, I like this reaction. I like what it does to people: forces them to reconsider some of their stereotypes.

And I also like that it gives me the opportunity to tempt them. To corrupt them. By taking them shooting.

What can I say? I’m evil. You know, like a Dark Lord of the Sith.


I don’t know how many people I have done this to. Not enough. I want to turn more of them. To have them hold a gun in their hands, to learn how they can control it, to use it safely.

Because I have found that this is key – turning their fear of something they do not understand into a tool that they can use. I tap into the strong emotion of fear, subvert it, direct it. It becomes a motivator. It helps them understand that a gun needs to be respected and handled safely.

We go through the formula of the Four Rules. They handle the revolver, the pistol, and the rifle before the ammunition ever comes out of storage. We study cartridge, and bullet, and caliber. And then I reveal the mysteries of sighting, breathing, and trigger control.

We go to the range. There is the ritual of eye and hearing protection. A review of safety commands. An invocation of the formula of the Four Rules.

I take out a .22 rifle. Load it with one round only. Tension builds. I am down range at a simple target and fire the gun.

Now they’re almost hooked. There’s anticipation, almost a hunger as they watch me.

I check the gun to make sure it is unloaded. Hand it over, have them check it. Give them one round, have them load it. Carefully, they seat the rifle, take aim. When they are ready, I have them click off the safety, put their finger on the trigger and squeeze.

You can see it in their eyes. A part of them has come alive. A part they feared. Because they did not understand it.

Usually, they get a big smile on their face. Or maybe that comes later, when we shoot one of the handguns. Sometimes it takes until we get to one of the magnums, something with a real kick to it. A big badda-BOOM! But when that happens, every one of them is hooked.

Oh, not necessarily hooked in the sense of going out and getting their own guns, and taking up shooting sports as a lifetime activity. No, hooked in the sense of understanding at an almost cellular level what the appeal is: the ability to control a kind of power they never had before.

I have opened up a whole new world for them. Shown them possibilities they didn’t know existed. Gave them a taste of the potential they had locked away.

Some of them do get hooked in the sense of wanting to learn how to use that potential. They start asking me about the nuts and bolts of getting their own gun, what it takes to pass the state CCW requirements, the advantages of this caliber or that design. They become a convert.

But even if they don’t, they no longer have an irrational fear of guns because they now know something about them – something practical and hands-on—you can almost watch their stereotyping melt and wash away. They understand that guns are not inherently “evil” – they’re just a tool, which can be used by anyone willing to put in the time to learn how to do so.

And as we pack up from our trip to the range, I’ll usually joke that I have “turned them to the Dark Side.”

Like the good Sith Lord that I am.



Yeah, OK, now you know why I’m not the “Jim Downey” who was an SNL writer.

But I was trying to have a little fun with the idea of ‘turning’ someone on the subject of firearms, because it is a very real experience I’ve had countless times.


Jim Downey

July 30, 2017 Posted by | .22, .44 Magnum, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment