Seniors Take Aim

The over-50 crowd is now the biggest gun-toting demographic.

A pistol's sharp report pierces the morning calm, as Charles lowers his Glock automatic. A breeze ruffling his white hair, he scans a bullet-stopping berm among dusty cacti at the Desert Trails Gun Club.

Reversing a longstanding trend, older Americans such as Charles, 66 (who requested his last name not be used), are now the mostly likely of all citizens to own a gun. And they account for more than a third of the 700 members regularly honing their marksmanship at this no-nonsense range on Tucson's eastern fringes.

Some practice simply for pleasure. But a growing number are deadly serious about protecting themselves, says Desert Trails owner Richard Batory, who cites a "nearly 100 percent jump in the last year of my older members who carry concealed weapons."

Statewide, the Arizona Department of Public Safety reports that more than 31,000 residents between the ages of 50 and 69--including 6,200 women--have concealed weapons permits. It's easy to understand why, says Batory. "Just read the papers. Older people are getting tired of being picked on by savages."

But the fear of violence that drives seniors to arm themselves may be exaggerated. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 3.4 percent of Americans aged 65 or older were victims of violent crime in 2002, down from 9.1 percent in 1973.

"People become more sensitive to the threat of victimization as they age," says Bryan Byers, a professor of criminal justice at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "The fear of crime eventually outweighs the reality."

Today's senior citizens also witnessed "a tremendous surge in crime during the 1960s," he says. "That was their experience during a very important time in their lives," and can color their perceptions decades later. As people age, such worries can also be reinforced by television shows portraying the elderly as frequent crime victims. The resulting fear can translate into certain "self-protective behaviors," Byers says, "such as not wanting to go out at night, not wanting to travel and purchasing guns for protection."

But there are other concerns when seniors carry firearms. For example, researchers "really don't know for sure how many elderly people who use weapons to protect themselves actually have those weapons turned against them," he says.

Firearms are also a major safety risk for people suffering from age-related dementia. On the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center Web site, caregivers of Alzheimer's patients post stories of close calls and tragedies. One woman removed firearms from the home she shares with her Alzheimer's-ridden husband after a neighbor with AD committed a murder-suicide. Another writes that too many times, caregivers find themselves "trapped in bathrooms with a cell phone."

Alzheimer's sufferers are sometimes even able to buy guns themselves, says Mark Warner, author of The Complete Guide to Alzheimer's-Proofing Your Home. "Often, the person behind the counter selling a weapon doesn't have the skills or awareness to detect someone in the early stages of dementia."

But gun-rights advocates fiercely oppose attempts to restrict seniors from purchasing firearms, or screening those who do. Armed seniors "are no more of a safety risk than anyone else," says John Bender, executive director of the Texas-based Seniors United Supporting the Second Amendment. Instead, he says that guns "make everyone equal" by compensating for physical disabilities seniors may suffer.

Back at Desert Trails, Richard Batory says he's never turned anyone away because they were too feeble to shoot. "We have a member with Parkinson's disease, and one who is blind but can still hit the target." Actually, seniors often make the best students, he says. "You don't have to fight egos and testosterone. And they don't like seniors-only classes. If you single them out, they think they're not able to keep up with everybody else."

Charles heartily agrees. The retired auto-parts worker claims many reasons for senior citizens to pack guns. One occurred just recently, when he was approached by a suspicious man in a Fry's parking lot. "I moved my hand to my side, and put it on my .45," he says with a slight grin. "The guy knew I had something, and he took off. You need to be able to protect yourself, because the police are not always able to protect you at any moment."

As he looks over his pistol, Charles is joined by another club member, Jim Coniglio, who is retired from the specialty chemical business. Displaying his pistol, Coniglio, 60, says both he and his wife carry concealed weapons. He handles a magazine loaded with 10 millimeter hollow-point bullets. "Just knowing that more seniors may carry a gun makes criminals think twice," he says.

In the end, "the best insurance seniors can have against violent crime is a well-armed citizenry,"

Charles agrees, gripping his Glock. "Besides, it's a God-given right."

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