By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Roughly one-third of older people in the U.S. may live in households with guns and a new study suggests that many of those firearms are not stored in the safest way: locked and unloaded.

Researchers examined survey data from 4,428 men and women aged 65 and older in Washington State. Overall, 1,696 participants, or 39 percent, lived in households with firearms, researchers report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Only 33 percent of people in households with firearms reported that all guns were kept locked and unloaded. Almost one in four participants with firearms at home kept at least one gun loaded and unlocked – the type of storage most associated with accidental injuries and suicide.

“There is some evidence that safe storage of firearms can mitigate the risk of suicide in homes of older adults with dementia or depressive symptoms,” said lead study author Erin Morgan of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center and the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Unloading firearms and keeping them locked is an easy preventive measure for patients and their families,” Morgan said by email.

About 17 percent of participants had a diagnosis of depression and another 7 percent reported frequent mental distress.

In addition, 12 percent of the older adults in the study reported experiencing memory loss in the previous year. Only about 6 percent reported discussing memory difficulties with a clinician.

“When people have memory loss, dementia or serious mental health problems, the risk of suicide is higher,” Morgan said. “Putting additional barriers between someone who is potentially at risk for suicide and the lethal means they could use to harm themselves can save lives.”

But the study didn’t find any difference in how households stored their guns based on whether participants had mental health or memory problems.

The study wasn’t designed to prove whether or how firearm storage habits might contribute to injuries or suicides involving guns.

Even so, the results suggest that older adults and their families need to talk about safe gun storage, said Alex Piquero, a criminology researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Persons with dementia, memory loss, or risk factors that show a heightened risk for suicide may increase their risk of self-harm if they have easy and unfiltered access to firearms and may make a decision without complete understanding of what it is they are doing,” Piquero said by email.

Seniors need to understand the importance of not just attending to their mental health needs, but also to safely secure and store firearms to decrease the likelihood of firearm accidents and potentially firearm deaths, Piquero said.

“The absolute safest way to store firearms in the home to reduce risk is to keep the firearms locked and unloaded,” Piquero said.

It’s less clear, however, how families can proceed when seniors have mental health or cognitive problems that make it a good idea to remove any firearms from the home, Piquero said.

Few states restrict access to guns when people have dementia, making it legally challenging for guns to be removed for this reason when older adults want to keep firearms at home, he said.

“It seems ripe for the American Medical Association and scientists to further explore these risks in order to decide the most appropriate policy response,” Piquero said. “Failure to take this seriously may lead to more firearm injuries and deaths among elderly adults with mental health issues.”

SOURCE: Annals of Internal Medicine, online April 15, 2019.