Having never really had that "dad" influence in my life I never gave any thought to what it would feel like to get to the stage where I was taking care of mine. About ten years ago, I met a great woman who soon became a great fiance and then an amazing wife. We spent a great deal of time with her parents, both avid shooters, life long enthusiasts, and instructors. Never, did I consider having to take their access to their own firearms away from them.
As we grew closer as a family, my father-in-law and I began spending countless hours at the local range together. He was a founding member and his interaction with the people at the range gate and other members made range days a fantastic experience. When we moved back to town from Idaho, we were out shooting with his new group of shooting buddies within days of our return. They are all a great group of gun "nuts." Happy to show you new or refined techniques. Always there to keep each other safe when running moving fire drills or good for a tip when learning to shoot out past 500 yards. Never would I consider telling any of these men that they had become a safety risk and they could no longer have access to their firearms.
In October, we noticed a significant change in Dad's behavior. He began to act a bit withdrawn. He was no longer eager to engage in deep conversation and began spending a great deal of time in his own room, watching TV, or reading. I figured that it might be depression. He had recently retired and the economic environment we all now share forced all of us under the same roof. He was no longer spending hours at the reloading bench, choosing instead to nap. Nothing seemed to out of place until we went for a visit to one of our shooting buddy's houses to pick up some deer meat after a fall hunt.
The interaction was, at best, an odd one. Here was one of Dad's closest shooting friends and he didn't say a single word. Normally, as the new kid, I had to fight to get a word in edge-wise. At one point, almost as if we had both received a silent signal that the enemy was approaching, we both made eye contact, looked at Dad, and realized that something was horribly wrong.
A few conversations with the ladies of the house and Dad was at the doctor's office. Even his physician found his behavior to be far from the norm and she immediately sent him to the emergency room to be evaluated by MRI, CT Scan, and EKG/ECG. What they found was that Dad had a brain tumor. Not just any brain tumor, but a big-ass stage 4 glioblastoma. A fast-growing brain cancer that can quickly bring a strong and healthy man to his knees.
After a 10-day stay in the ICU, he was released home. Over the course of the next week, we watched as this calm, peaceful, and supportive man became even more withdrawn. The tumor has attacked the portion of his brain that controls his personality and his gumption. He no longer has the energy to do much of anything and a guy who truly has a tremendous sense of humor now has only two tones in his voice. Rather than the excitement and exuberance we once knew, we now get a very solemn tone or a very angry one, rife with frustration.
The family and I, soon became faced with a need to remove his bedside pistol and place it in the safe. As his ability to move began to slip away, we didn't want to have any accidents. With his level of frustration on the rise, we began to question whether it was Dad driving, or the tumor, and I'm not ashamed to admit that we were all a bit afraid of what might happen. As a man, raised primarily in a rural area, I began to think about what I would do if I was in that situation and the farm up-bringing got the best of me. We put all the guns quickly into the safe and looked into having the massive enclosure re-keyed with a new combination.
We resigned ourselves to leaving it alone about a week later. When I say we are enthusiasts, a better term might be fanatics. Dad and I's daily conversations were about firearms. Shooting the ones we already own, building new ones to take to the range, and the things we still "needed" to acquire for our reloading room which is of course in doors in a place where most families would have a nice patio sitting room. The stuff we read together all had to do with firearms and our favorite movies are those where the shoot 'em up scenes are the most realistic. On any given day, Dad and I might have a firearm out trying to determine the best way to adjust a scope or replacing a recoil spring. Maybe just cleaning it or looking up an antique on the internet. None of us were really surprised when dad came out of his room one afternoon and headed straight for the safe.
It did, however, create a stir of concern. "Chris," my sister-in-law pleaded, "dad is trying to get into the safe."
This was an awkward situation. How was I, as the son-in-law, going to convince my shooting mentor that in his current mental state, he had no business whatsoever opening his own safe and pulling out one of his own firearms. It was clear this was to be a sensitive matter.
I should point out that out of all of us, Dad can usually get into the safe in a matter of seconds without ever having to make a second effort at the combination. To watch him open it at the height of his shooting prowess was something of a magical event. He never even looked like he was watching the numbers on the dial. We soon realized how bad things were when after 20 minutes of screwing with it, he turned to me and said in a somewhat frustrated tone, "I need you to open this."
"Dad," I replied reluctantly, "what do you want out of the safe?"
"I want an old pistol I have down there that looks like a pirate gun," he insisted. He had been watching a few hours of shooting shows on the History Channel and he was inspired to try and locate the manufacturer's marks and see what the old cap and ball hand cannon was worth. I was immediately relieved for a couple of reasons. I knew that even if he had some kind of intent on hurting himself the fact that he was unable to open a safe that he could at one time open in his sleep indicated that he didn't have the dexterity anymore to hold the pistol with any kind of accuracy let alone load it. I also knew that we don't keep .58 caliber ammunition or black powder patches on hand. I retrieved the pistol, pulled it from it's protective bag, checked to make sure it was safe to handle and turned it over to my mentor.
It was obvious that not only had we been put in the position of removing Dad's access to his own weapons, but that the tumor itself had deprived him of the ability of even getting to his own guns. I will tell you, that our shared hobby of shooting together is something I will deeply miss, but the things he taught me will always be cherished. As dad lies in ICU for a second time and his team of neurologists, surgeons, oncologists, and internists work feverishly to try and fight the un-welcomed invader that is currently living in his brain, we are all struggling to deal with the emotion of such a rapid decline. Just a couple months ago, Dad and I had taken a trip to the range to watch a tactical match and met some incredible shooter sponsored by some amazing manufacturers. Now, he spends most of his day sleeping needing assistance to get from bed to wheel chair, and from bedroom to various appointments.
It is hell to watch your favorite shooting partner decline so rapidly. That said, it is our responsibility to our sport, our past time, and our fellow shooters to address situations such as this responsibly. Even the people who preach safety and spent their lives teaching us to interact with our firearms in a responsible manner can become a danger to themselves and others. While I pray none of you ever have to keep your shooting mentors from having access to their own weapons. I pray also that God give you the wisdom to know when it is time.
I will leave you today with this... Spend your time with those you love, do things together that bring you joy and happiness. Never turn down an opportunity to do something you want to do with someone you respect and care about. Life is short and can be taken away from you in a moment's notice. Take the time to talk to your fellow shooting buddies and your parent's - if you come from a shooting family - so that you know what their wishes are when it comes time to limit their access to their own firearms.