As President Barack Obama prepares to take his plan for stronger gun laws to Congress, local law enforcement officials wonder if another new law is the answer or should legislators just strengthen what is already in place.
“We as a society have to have a change in our mindset that violence is not the solution to our problems,” Muscle Shoals Police Chief Robert Evans said. “Taking a life is something, unfortunately, that we take lightly. The sanctity of life has been reduced.”
The president unveiled his plan after the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six adults were killed.
“What happened in the school shooting is horrible, but there has to be some sound legislation, something well thought out, not knee-jerk reactions,” Tuscumbia Police Chief Tony Logan said. “You can’t legislate morality, common sense or a moral value on society.”
Included in Obama’s plan: Renew a prohibition on assault weapon sales that expired in 2004, require criminal background checks on all gun purchases, including closing a loophole for gun show sales, and pass a new federal gun trafficking law.
“We have people right now that have our departments outgunned — we have shotguns and they have assault weapons,” Lauderdale County Sheriff Ronnie Willis said.
“I recognize the right to own and possess firearms legally, and they can be purchased legally,” Colbert County Sheriff Ronnie May said about the military-style weapons. “When we learn they are in a home, it concerns us.”
May said knowing that someone has a military-style weapon in their home just “magnifies the threat” that officers have to face by an “irate spouse or mental patient.”
Russellville Police Chief Chris Hargett said making certain weapons illegal will just take them out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.
“The criminals will continue to get them. It will not stop them from getting these type of weapons,” Hargett said.
Logan said the vast majority of guns his department takes off the street are not registered to the people who have them in their possession.
“I don’t think there is any law on the books that is going to fix that,” he said.
He said the online sale of guns and sales conducted in the parking lots of guns shows will have to be addressed.
“There are one-on-one sales by individuals,” Hargett said. “How can that be stopped or regulated?”
Local police chiefs and sheriffs admit they have mixed feelings about the president’s plan.
“There‘s a fine line between a constitutional right and being safe,” Willis said. “You can take a shotgun or a pistol in a school and do as much damage as with an automatic weapon.”
Logan said the president has to be careful how he pushes the issue.
“I am a firm believer in our Constitution. That’s what separates us from other countries,” Logan said.
Obama has announced steps he intends to take immediately, which include improving the existing system for background checks, putting more counselors and resource officers in schools and better access to mental health services.
“I’d love to see more officers in schools, but where is the money going to come from,” Logan asked. “We’re all strapped and having to do more with less.”
May said background checks on gun purchases and pistol permits need to be strengthened.
“There is nothing on the background check that lets us know about a person’s mental health,” May said. “There’s is no way to know a person’s mental background unless we know them and know their mental situation.”
Franklin County Sheriff Shannon Oliver said most of the people who have been involved in high-profile shootings across the nation had mental health issues.
“I totally agree we need to have stiffer background checks,” Oliver said. “If someone wants to buy a gun, they can buy a gun. But there are some people who are just not stable enough to have a gun.”
Oliver said no one wants to take away the public’s right to bear arms.
“But we don’t want to see people misusing that right, either,” he said. “I don’t know if this plan is going to stop the problem or not, but I think we all agree something needs to be done.”
Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.
Four points in President Barack Obama’s gun-control plan include:
Close background check loopholes. This includes requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales and removing barriers that prevent states from reporting information about individuals who are prohibited from having guns.
Ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. This includes getting armor-piercing bullets off the streets and providing training for police, first responders and school officials.
Make schools safer. This includes putting school resource officers and mental health professionals in schools.
Improve mental health services. This includes “mental health first aid” training for teachers, train additional mental health professional to serve students and young adults and ensure coverage of mental health treatment.