Newport case sheds light on issue of aging relatives and gun safety

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/10/2019 10:03:22 PM
Modified: 5/10/2019 10:03:09 PM

NEWPORT — New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s announcement that a 75-year-old Newport woman was shot and killed this week by her husband, who is suffering from dementia, is casting light on a topic many families may have to address: what to do about an aging relative who owns a weapon but may no longer be capable of using it responsibly.

It’s especially relevant in the Twin States, which have among the nation’s most permissive gun laws and the oldest populations, health care and law enforcement professionals noted.

“This is something that we all need to look at,” Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis said on Friday. “We will all be faced with it at some point in time.”

Just what prompted Newport resident George “Graham” Clarke, 77, to allegedly shoot his wife Margaret “Peggy” Clarke in the chest isn’t clear, authorities said on Thursday. But his mental and medical condition, which includes “terminal cognitive and physical health issues including dementia” played a role, the Attorney General’s Office said. Because of Clarke’s failing health and questions about his legal competency, criminal charges are not expected, authorities said. Efforts to reach the Clarke family this week were unsuccessful.

Answering the question of what to do about an aging relative who owns a gun, or who still may be driving, isn’t always easy, as every case is different and must be looked at individually, said Ellen Flaherty, the director of Dartmouth Centers for Health and Aging at the Geisel School of Medicine.

The conversation should start early and center first around the safety of the person suffering from a failing health condition, as well as the safety of others, she said. Risk can help determine how acute the issue is and help guide the conversation.

Taking a gun away from a former police officer suffering from dementia, for example, can “certainly provoke emotion” within a family, said Flaherty who spoke generally about the topic on Friday, and not specifically about the Clarke case.

“Our goal is to maximize someone’s quality of life and help them to stay in the community where they want to stay,” she said. “But safety is of utmost concern, especially for people with dementia.”

Having the tough conversations about when it is appropriate to take away an individual’s driving privileges or remove their firearms from their home is far and wide, Kaiser Health News reported last year.

Reporters interviewed families whose loved ones suffering from dementia died by suicide or who unintentionally shot and killed someone. A four-month investigation by the news agency found more than 100 cases in the United States since 2012 in which people with dementia used guns in deadly incidents, 15 homicides and more than 95 suicides.

It’s unclear how many of those — if any — took place in Vermont or New Hampshire.

It’s no secret that the Twin States have an aging population, and with that, “the number of people who have dementia is growing just as fast,” Flaherty said.

That makes prevention even more important, said Lori McKenna, a social worker and mental health clinician at the University of Vermont Medical Center Memory Program.

The center works directly with families, whom staff say they like to see early on in the disease process. That way health care professionals can discuss what support is available to the family and assess all levels of risk, among many other things, McKenna said.

As part of their assessment, center staff talk about firearms in the home as well as a person’s risk for wandering away from home for example.

Asking the tough questions can be challenging, she said, but they are best done early on in the process, so that the person exhibiting signs of dementia can be incorporated in planning for their own future.

Dennis, the Hanover police chief, also spoke of the importance of having the conversations early and “having a plan in place to remove items (guns or keys) … before it gets to a point where it does get difficult.”

“It’s a nationwide thing. People need to have these difficult but crucial conversations,” he said.

Protecting “individual rights” and “our community and the people in it” is an important balancing act, Dennis said.

Wesley Raney, a Hartland resident who owns Green Mountain Armory, which provides firearms training and advocates for gun rights, said the decision of whether to remove firearms should be left to family members or the “smallest level possible.”

“The best-case scenario is that family members are aware and in contact and handle it responsibly,” he said.

They also could rely on legal means in some cases.

The Kaiser story noted that federal law prohibits people who have advanced dementia or are otherwise not mentally competent from owning or buying a firearm. In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott last year signed a “red flag” law that allows police to obtain an “extreme risk protection order” to temporarily take guns from a person who poses a significant danger of causing injury to himself or others.

A similar bill in the New Hampshire legislature that would have allowed police or family members to seek such orders was tabled in March.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at or 603-727-3248.

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