Tuesday, January 22

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Seniors and self-defense

by Kathleen Fox

Ageism creates awareness of the need to defend oneself.

They become more aware that some age-related weakness, whether physical or mental, can make them more of a target for criminals.

Many seniors are choosing to protect themselves with pepper spray, tasers, baseball bats and, of course, firearms.

John Thomas, 85, a resident of Memphis for 60, years, says, "It's a wonderful feeling to know we have this weapon, but the last thing I ever want to do is to shoot someone."

Many senior citizens' anxiety is based on a fear fostered by the entertainment media, which feature senior citizens as the primary target for violent attacks. Firearms and other self-defense weapons allow older residents to feel they have an increased chance to defend themselves.

Thomas says: "Crime is everywhere and no one knows where it is. Victimized people need to be able to protect themselves."

As gun ownership for senior citizens continues to increase over the last 10 years, it has decreased overall, according to the Crime Gun Trace Reports by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). In 1994, 49 percent of households owned a firearm, but in 2004, that number was down to 39 percent of households.

Although numbers are decreasing, the issue of firearms is still on the forefront of American culture. There are 233 million firearms in the United States, and four gun-related deaths every hour, according to the Department of Justice.

Ann Bowling a senior citizen and resident of Memphis says: "Guns are everywhere on television and in the news. After a while I have become desensitized to guns and the constant violence in Memphis."

However, the perceived risk for senior citizens is not reinforced by current crime statistics. Teenagers and young adults, ages 12 to 24 are the most likely age group to be victimized.

In 2002, 3.4 percent of senior citizens were victims of violent crime, down from 9.1 percent in 1973, according to the United Station Bureau of Justice Statistics. Some seniors argue this decrease in victimization is a result of the mental benefits from firearm training and ownership.

Thomas says: "Everything is based on fear, fear of being attacked. Seniors needed something to feel better and protection weapons allowed us to feel more at ease in our own homes."

Although the number of violent crimes affecting senior citizens continues to decrease, gun ownership continues to increase. United States residents ages 65-and-up are the most likely to own a gun, according to the General Social Survey from the University of Chicago.

The surge in gun ownership for senior citizens results from a nostalgia of their childhood. Some seniors fondly recall the days of less fear and more community relationships.

Thomas comments: "When we were growing up you left your doors open, but now there is this fear. There is always that uncertainty especially for older people."

The fear for many seniors is based on an acknowledgement of their physical inferiority. Firearms improve the odds of a "fair fight" and are the natural step for many older citizens who grew up during World War II or the Vietnam War.

Tom Givens, owner of RangeMasters in Memphis says, "The reality is people over 65 have little chance against an 18-30 year old male thug in a physical fight."

However, gun training for senior citizens is not limited to those with combat experience or just to male citizens. Women over the age of 65 are also turning to firearm training.

Helen Thomas, 83, of Memphis, says: "I was never familiar with guns. I had never held a gun in my life, but I realized I needed to learn the basics, how to load it and fire it."

Crime and fear are becoming more of a reality for senior citizens who are residents of Memphis. Memphis was named the second-most-dangerous city in the United States by Forbes Magazine with the use of the FBI 2008 Crime Report.

Not all senior citizens are thrilled with the prospect of owning a firearm. Bowling comments: "I have never thought of owning a gun. You always hear of guns going off accidentally and hurting or killing people."

According to the owner and instructors at RangeMaster Training Center in Memphis, the most important thing for senior citizens and all citizens to know is a gun will not protect someone unless they make an effort to protect themselves.

Bill Baker, an instructor at RangeMasters, says: "We teach situational awareness. We teach everyone to be more aware in life and more aware of their surroundings."

Although RangeMasters has not seen a large increase in class enrollment for senior citizens, the age group has always been well represented within their classes.

Demographics for a typical RangeMaster class have a median age of 49 with students ranging in ages from 25 to 72. The average RangeMaster student is middle age, male or female and either a professional or retired professional.

According to Givens, "Using a handgun well is neither gender specific, nor age specific, as long as the physical hand strength to work the gun correctly is present."

Baker attributes the greater interest from seniors to an increase in shooting and training in general. Society is continually aging, and with it the number of senior citizens interested in firearm training will continue to rise.

Citizens over 50 amount to 29 percent of the population but were only victim to nine percent of violent crime, according to the Criminal Victimization and Perceptions of Community Safety Survey.

However there are several dangers associated with firearms being readily available to older residents, including mental disabilities or impairments and the assailant's ability to use the firearm against the senior.

Another factor is the commonplace nature of crime being associated with close relatives or friends. In 2002, according to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, five of every ten victims of violent crime knew their offenders and 22 percent of murders were committed by family members or friends.

The increase of personal connections for senior citizens who have fostered families, relationships and businesses throughout their lives also brings an increase in trepidation.

Controversy continues regarding the Second Amendment and firearm bans in several U.S. states. There are 40 states with right-to-carry laws and 10 states with laws banning right-to-carry laws.

"You could be the best boxer or fighter in the entire world, but if the criminal has a gun, then he/she has the advantage. In today's world it's wise to have some sort of protection," Thomas said.

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