A pistol's sharp report pierces the morning calm, as Charles Van Vibber lowers his Glock automatic. He scans a bullet-stopping berm among dusty cactuses at the Desert Trails Gun Club, as a breeze ruffles his white hair.
"You need to be able to protect yourself, because the police are not always able to protect you at any moment," he says.
Mr. Van Vibber, a retired auto-parts worker, and other older Americans account for more than a third of the 700 members regularly honing their marksmanship at this no-nonsense range on Tucson's fringes. Some practice simply for pleasure. But a growing number, including Van Vibber, are 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."
Reversing longstanding patterns in the US, residents ages 65 and up are now the mostly likely of all citizens to own a gun. "Personal gun ownership used to be highest among the middle-aged, but in our 2000 and 2002 survey, it was highest among the 65-plus age group. So there is a shift upwards in gun ownership," says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey, which is part of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
In Arizona alone, the state's 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 Mr. 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 US Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 3.4 percent of Americans 65 or older fell victim to violent crime in 2002, down from 9.1 percent in 1973. Regardless, "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. Worries about violence can be reinforced by TV shows portraying the elderly as frequent crime victims. The resulting fear can translate into certain "self-protective behaviors," Mr. Byers says, "such as not wanting to go out at night, not wanting to travel, and purchasing guns for protection."
But carrying weapons has its own set of concerns. For example, gun-owning seniors, like any age group, are at risk for having their weapons used against them. Byers notes, however, that researchers haven't been able to compile the exact number of incidents in which this has happened.
Firearms are also a major safety risk for people struggling with age-related dementia. On the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center website, 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."
Those with early Alzheimer's symptoms 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," he says.
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 have.
At Desert Trails, Batory, the owner, 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, because "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 Van Vibber heartily agrees, and he claims many reasons for senior citizens to pack guns. One occurred just recently, when he was approached by a suspicious man in a store 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."
In the end, "the best insurance seniors can have against violent crime is a well-armed citizenry," says Van Vibber, gripping his pistol. "Besides, it's a God-given right."