Correction: Aug. 30, 2002: On Aug. 9, Explainer wrote, "For [Charlton] Heston to lose his Second Amendment rights, a court would have to find that he has a grave illness or represents [a threat to others]." Explainer should have noted that for Heston to even be placed before the court, he would in almost every case first have to be involuntarily hospitalized by the state of California. The most likely outcome is that Heston will never enter the California mental health system at all.
If Heston has Alzheimer's and enters a state of severe dementia, it's likely that his family will go to California probate court and set up what is commonly called a "dementia conservatorship." This would place a Heston family member in charge of the actor's affairs. Under a dementia conservatorship, the court is not required by statute to rule on Heston's fitness to own firearms, nor is it required to report his condition to the California Department of Justice. More than likely, Heston's firearms would be placed under the care of the family member in charge of his affairs.
For pointing out and correcting the error, Explainer thanks Eugene Volokh of UCLA law school and Jim Preis of Mental Health Advocacy Service, a public interest law firm.
Addendum, Aug. 15, 2002: On Wednesday, Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for the California attorney general's office and source for this Explainer, told the New York Daily News, "California law doesn't require you to give up your weapons if you have Alzheimer's." That seems to contradict what Jordan told Slate the previous week. Jordan has not returned Explainer's phone messages to clarify the discrepancy. We'll let you know when she does.
Actor Charlton Heston announced today that he has symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Heston is the president of the National Rifle Association and owns firearms. If he is diagnosed with full-blown Alzheimer's, will he have to give up his guns?
Yes. This section of California state law requires that anyone who represents a threat to others because of a mental disorder or illness can't own a firearm. The state also denies gun ownership to those suffering from any kind of grave illness. For Heston to lose his Second Amendment rights, a court would have to find that he has a grave illness or represents such a threat.
Here's how the process would work: If Heston's doctor suspects him to be unfit, California law compels the doctor to tell the local district attorney's office. The DA would then file a motion to revoke Heston's gun ownership rights. A judge would make the final call, after consulting with Heston's physician and, in most cases, another doctor of the judge's choosing.
If a judge found Heston unfit, the actor would have two options: surrender his guns to authorities or legally transfer their ownership to someone outside his house. (Giving the guns to his wife might still put them within his reach.) Heston's name would then be added to the state's Armed Prohibited Persons File—a list of California residents who bought their firearms legally but have since been judged unfit to keep them. That means Heston would be prevented from legally purchasing another firearm. The bill creating the no-gun file went into effect Jan. 1 and was initially supported by the NRA. Next question?
Explainer thanks Hallye Jordan of the California attorney general's office and Tim Rieger of the California Department of Justice.