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January 17, 2013

Mental health — not guns — the issue at hand

Law enforcement officials say mental health reform, better background checks needed

OTTUMWA — Law enforcement officials agree that the bigger issue in the discussion following the Sandy Hook shooting is mental health, not gun control.

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City, held a conference call with 13 sheriffs and police chiefs from eastern and southeastern Iowa Wednesday afternoon to absorb their ideas about what needs to be done following the Newtown, Conn. shooting last month.

Ottumwa Police Chief Jim Clark said school resource officers, the COPS program and JAG grants are critical.

“Banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is strictly a feel-good measure. It won’t accomplish anything,” Clark said.

President Barack Obama announced a $500 million gun violence package Wednesday that includes universal background checks and bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Loebsack said that he has not yet looked at Obama’s proposal and could not make any commitment right now as to how he would vote.

Clark noted that not everyone has mental health issues.

“Some people are just criminals and need to be treated like criminals, get put away and not let out,” Clark said. “Also if we look at Chicago, they have some of the most restrictive gun laws in the county but they have the highest numbers of murders with firearms.”

But Sigourney Police Chief Allan Glandon said sometimes, mentally ill people can become criminally insane people.

“Getting mentally ill people treatment seems to be our issue here, but we can’t access the system,” Glandon said. “There doesn’t seem to be enough psychologists out here in rural Iowa.”

He said law enforcement spends far too much time waiting for a bed to open up somewhere in the state for a mentally ill person.

Muscatine County Sheriff David White said a deputy picked up an individual on an emergency committal at 4 p.m. Friday and was stuck sitting with him at the hospital until 1 p.m. Monday before a bed opened up.

“It’s not a sheriff’s job to ... guard these individuals,” White said. “When there’s no bed for three days, that stretches our personnel, and we’re a much larger department than some of the small communities.”

Davis County Sheriff Dave Davis said people need to remember that firearms are not the only weapons that kill people.

“The high-capacity magazines ... I don’t believe they’re needed out here by the public but as for the type of weapon, if somebody chooses to target practice or hunt with an AR-15 or AR-10, I don’t have a problem with that,” Davis said. “They could do just as much damage with a hunting shotgun. The way I look at it, it is the person behind that weapon, whether it’s a shotgun or a knife, that really poses the biggest problem for our kids and our people within our communities.”

White said at a recent gun show he attended, lines wove out the door, even though AR-15-style weapons and high-capacity magazines have now doubled or tripled in price since the Sandy Hook shooting.

“With 300 million guns in the United States I think we’re just spinning wheels,” White said. “Drugs have been illegal for years and no one has problems getting those. Murder is illegal but it doesn’t stop folks from constantly going out and killing people.

“Let’s face it. Folks don’t need to have an assault rifle to kill people.”

Clark said there need to be mandatory design requirements for school buildings.

“We have many older schools here and the doors open out, not in,” he said. “So you can’t barricade the doors. And we don’t have automatic door closures. In fact, many of our doors in the schools don’t lock or don’t have locks.”

Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said school resource officers are desperately needed.

“Weapons issues are worthy of discussion themselves, but they have nothing to do with are we making our schools and our children safer,” Hargadine said.

Eldridge Police Chief David Kopatich said the North Scott School District employs the ALICE (Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate) Training program.

“In the past, what we’ve seen ... is schools simply go into lockdown mode, where students are locked up in a classroom, sitting and waiting,” Kopatich said. “In cases where we’ve had active shooters, we see history shows us it’s not a good idea to sit there and wait.

“Sitting and waiting for a gunman to randomly shoot everyone in the room is probably not a good option.”

Kopatich said the ALICE program teaches students and staff that “you need to survive this situation at any cost,” even if it means throwing a chair out of a window to escape.

He also said giving teachers the ability to lock their classrooms means “if there were a shooter in the hallway, it would allow [them] some time to take other action.”

White noted that some schools have panic buttons strategically located that will automatically close all interior doors if they’re pressed. But, those only exist in schools built in the last five to six years, he said.

Appanoose County Sheriff Gary Anderson said since his county is on the Missouri border, one of his biggest problems is completing background checks on people from other states and identifying if they have any mental health issues before they can obtain a concealed carry permit.

Davis said his concern also lies in those moving in from out of state.

“We are not receiving the information being needed for us to do proper background checks on the mental health status of individuals,” Davis said. “It’s kind of hard for us to know if somebody moves in here from Florida, whether they’re under a doctor’s care for mental issues in the past.”

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