If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know I’m an estate planning attorney. However, there’s an area of law I focus on that I haven’t talked much about just yet on this blog: Firearms Planning – or simply, Gun Trusts.
Right now, gun show season seems to be upon us again. If you’re unfamiliar with the gun show world, there is a rhythm to it: the shows tend to happen around the holidays, then there’s a lull, then they pick back up toward summer. So this seems like an opportune time to share some important information about firearms and gun trusts.
I know, I know—guns are a touchy subject given current events. I’m going to venture out and tackle it anyway, though, because there are some important things to know about firearms, especially when it comes to planning for what happens to them after the gun owner’s death.
As an estate planning attorney who also helps people set up gun trusts, I attend gun shows for marketing and visibility within the community. You go where the client goes, right? And I have a lot of interesting conversations with gun owners. People often ask me: Why gun trusts? Why include this particular niche as part of my law practice? When I first began practicing law, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to add gun trusts as an area of practice. But then I saw more and more that it was an area of need. There was a void to be filled when it comes to gun trusts—not so much about advocacy or gun rights, but about education.
What do you need to have in place to ensure your firearms will be safely handled after your death? What do you do if you discover firearms while going through a deceased relative’s belongings? What happens if you inherit firearms?
Knowing what to do and what to expect, knowing how to handle things, can make these situations far less scary. That’s why education is so important, and why I attend so many gun shows and do this part of my work.
It’s difficult to discuss gun trusts—or guns at all—without hitting political minefields. I’m not here to debate the political aspect of gun ownership, but I believe people at all places on the belief spectrum about firearms can agree on at least this: guns are deadly weapons. As former military with a background in explosives, I’ve been trained on the use and purpose of firearms and other items. I also understand their risk. This is why I believe gun trusts are so important…not just as tools of freedom but also as assets in an estate.
In the wake of heartbreaking tragedies like Uvalde and Buffalo and Tulsa, reactions tend to swing on a pendulum. Gun rights advocates speak out in force, and so do those advocating the opposite: All guns are bad. Ban all guns. The reality is, no branch of our government presently has the resources or the capacity to actually carry out a ban like that. So many guns are unregistered or not tracked at all. If the government retrieves only the tracked, registered guns, how many more are left untracked? We simply don’t have the resources to tackle that problem. To realistically pull off a ban where all guns were removed, every single citizen of the U.S. would have to be part of the government operation. If everyone became government, who would they be governing?
We could talk all day about gun control, but the truth is, we just aren’t protecting our most valuable resources. In early 2021, a cyber-hacker attempted to poison one of Florida’s water supplies by adjusting the system’s sodium hydroxide levels. Thankfully, the hack was caught in time to reverse the changes and there were safety-check measures in place, but that’s just one example of how some of our most precious resources are shockingly vulnerable to attack. Wouldn’t you think, if something as vital as a city’s water supply is controlled by computer systems, there would be active and hacker-proof measures in place against cyber-attacks? How was a hacker even able to gain access?
Similarly, many of our most valuable locations—schools, churches, hospitals—are soft targets, exposed with little to no security. These are places filled with the vulnerable: children, families who come to learn, worship together, and to heal people who are injured or sick. If we aren’t protecting these locations, of course they’ll be targets. They’re places of least resistance for those who want to do harm.
We cannot remove all guns from those who intend harm; it just isn’t logistically feasible. But we can protect those soft targets to make them less targetable. Military bases are seldom targeted for mass shootings. Why? Because they’re protected by military – by trained guards, with guns. They’re secured. Why can’t we implement this same basic protection to our most vulnerable targets, like schools?
Mental health doesn’t come with a scarlet letter. There’s often no telltale, external sign. When I took my undergrad courses on terrorism, there was one thing they taught us that humanity has been learning since the dawn of time: terrorism doesn’t always have a face. It can be an ideology. It’s the same with mental illness: you can’t always see it. Until we get better at detecting such illnesses, at identifying risks before they manifest, all we can do is protect our biggest vulnerabilities.
How does this all relate to gun trusts?
Let me tell you a little story from my time in the military.
At one point in my career, I had to get qualified on a 9mm. Usually, we’re qualified on M16s—similar to AR15s, but the military version. I was nervous about qualifying on a 9mm, but I was also like, “Hey, I get to fire this gun. Neat.” The instructor had us load magazines behind the line, then step up to the line, and fire the weapon.
There was a young Captain a couple lanes over from me who was severely inexperienced and very nervous—and who made this a scary situation for the rest of us. The instructor was teaching us how to find our natural firing stance, so he told us to square up with the line, close our eyes, and “kinda sway” side to side until we found a stance that was comfortable, then step one foot behind us: if we were right-handed, we’d put our right foot behind us. While I’m not one to question this instructor’s method, it let me tell you – the outcome was….interesting. That young Captain went above and beyond the “kinda sway” direction and was over there with his eyes closed, just swinging the gun all over the place – dang near 360 degrees (full circle), with the safety off!
The instructor yelled, “Stop!” That Captain almost got kicked off the range for being unsafe.
So why do gun trusts matter? It all goes back to making sure those firearms go to people who are trained and capable. When we were in that gun range, we were getting trained, but imagine someone nervous and inexperienced, inheriting a gun with no training and just taking it out into public with them, proud of their new gift. What happens when they feel threatened and try to use it, but instead panic? What happens when they’re just fooling around, unaware how dangerous the weapon they hold really is?
Guns should never be wielded by those who aren’t trained, or who don’t appreciate that what they’re holding is a deadly weapon.
One way of preventing harm from irresponsible gun use is to take whatever measures we can to ensure that any firearms included as part of someone’s estate will pass to responsible parties. This is where gun trusts come in.
One of the shortfalls in many traditional trusts out there is that they don’t include the language to determine who’s “fit” to inherit someone’s guns and related items? There’s no definition in a traditional trust for who qualifies as a “responsible person,” - a fit individual to inherit firearms, and no oversight of who receives the guns and items. The stated heir could have a domestic violence record, mental health issues, or be underage, and under a regular trust, they could still inherit the firearms. You see the problem here?
If a person hasn’t set up a gun trust—if they rely on a regular Trust or just a typical Will to declare who their firearms pass to, guns in the hands of people who have no idea how to safely wield them is a very real possibility.
This is why I’m so passionate about educating about firearms planning and why I attend gun shows to talk to people about Gun Trusts. The more people are knowledgeable and informed about how to safely handle and transfer their items, the safer things will be for all of us.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m increasing the frequency of these types of blogs here on my website. I’ll be sharing lots more information about estate planning, all interwoven with stories from my time in the military and some humor to hopefully make the posts both educational and entertaining. Be sure to check back next month for more posts!