With the nation rocked by the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the sleeping giant issue of gun control has been rudely awakened by the glaring sunlight of national grief. Attention surrounding the safety of children has been the primary focus, and rightly so, given that the tragedy took the lives of 20 first graders and six adult personnel in an elementary school.

However, the issue of gun control, more authentically propounded as gun safety, is of equal concern for the oldest as well as the youngest among us. That being said, the focus of debate on gun control should be shifted from the exclusive counterpoints of exercise or restriction of 2nd Amendment Constitutional rights to the cooperative discussion of public health implications of the ownership and use of guns in our society, so that those on both sides of this tangled issue can resolve their differences and turn their verbal weapons into plowshares.

Gun ownership high, increasing among seniors

Survey research indicates that our older population has a higher percentage of gun ownership than do other age groups. Approximately 37 percent of people 65 years old or older keep a firearm where they live, compared with 26 percent of individuals younger than 30.

Shortly following the Shihk temple shooting in Wisconsin in early August, the manager of a shooting range and gun shop in Aurora, Colo., told a CBS reporter in Denver that he had seen a 30 percent increase in gun sales with many couples, age 65-70, purchasing their first gun.

Elderly suicide among owners

Studies indicate individuals who are 65 and older have the highest rate of suicide among any other age group. A 2003 study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry reported the highest suicide rate is among older white males, with 71 percent of these suicides involving a gun.

Families should be alert to signs that an older loved one might be at risk of taking his or her own life. And, if there are guns present where the at-risk person lives, these should be immediately removed. Additionally, relatives and friends in whose homes this senior may visit should be warned to place guns out of access.

Homicide, accidental death

The issue of senior homicide has been historically one of the least studied areas of research, in part because through the 2008 census, those 65 or older took up only 12 percent of the population. However, the 2010 census revealed that this segment had risen to 13 percent, the largest in size and percentage of the population and growing the fastest. Perhaps, this growth will spur more interest in the future.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the homicide rate for individuals 65 and older is only 2.29 per 100,000. The accidental rate of death from firearms among seniors is also relatively low. However, if your own mother, father, grandfather or grandmother lies in the coffin, the number is too high.

Families must take steps to guarantee safety for older loved ones. If mom and dad live in a crime ridden neighborhood, it may be time to move. It may help to install an alarm system and to provide them with personal emergency communication devices they can carry at all times.

Impairments and gun safety

Susan Sorenson and Brian Mertens, a professor and an alum of the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, published an article in the May 2012 American Journal of Public Health in which they present possession and use of guns among the elderly as a public health issue.

Mertens and Sorenson contend that many of the safety questions regarding senior citizens and driving, such as memory, cognitive impairment, judgment and reaction timing, apply to firearms as well.

Geriatric managers report that they often work with families wrestling with impaired family members to surrender their guns to their children. This is especially difficult when the senior sees the gun as a symbol of independence and freedom. An avid hunter may fear giving over his or her rifle as much as or more than surrendering the car keys.

Not all of those suffering from Alzheimerís or other dementias are elderly. However, the Alzheimerís Association recommends that individuals with Alzheimerís of whatever age not be allowed access to guns.

Alarmingly, the Veterans Health Administration found that 40 percent of veterans with mild to moderate dementia had guns in their homes. In response, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has produced informative materials on dementia and firearm safety that is instructive for families of victims of dementia, whether they are veterans or not.

Make safety a priority

Many individuals older than 65 are perfectly capable of handling guns without endangering themselves or others. Men and woman of a certain age may still enjoy hunting and suffer no limitations that affect their capacity to do so safely. However, gun owners of any age need to be certain they store their guns where children and others who might not be trained in gun safety cannot cause harm with them.

The stories of children killed when guns are carelessly placed are legion. Annually, approximately 500 children die from accidental gun-shot wounds, whether self-inflicted or inflicted by others. The number really doesnít matter. One child dying from a bullet wound is one too many.

It is especially crucial during the holiday season, when families gather in each otherís homes, that everyone - not just grandparents - make gun safety a priority. Please, take all precautions necessary to insure possession and use of guns does not result in tragedy.

Sandra W. Reed is an attorney with Katten & Benson, an elder law firm in Fort Worth. She lives in Somervell County, near Chalk Mountain. If you have questions about this column or wish to suggest a topic of interest, she may be contacted at (254) 797-0211 or swreed2@yahoo.com .