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Police, educators, gun-shop owners respond to gun reform

Gun dealer Brad Marshall of Marshall Firearms talks with customers as president Barack Obama's gun control speech is heard on the radio at his store, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 in Boscawen, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Gun dealer Brad Marshall of Marshall Firearms talks with customers as president Barack Obama's gun control speech is heard on the radio at his store, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 in Boscawen, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Voices from law enforcement, gun shops, schools and the mental health field illustrate the gray areas that the federal government faces as it tries to keep the nation’s children safe.

With President Obama’s call for gun reform still resonating, balancing constitutional rights with what he termed “common sense” policy continues to form the core of an issue that’s been white hot during the past month.

Obama called for a ban on military-style assault weapons and a 10-round limit on high-capacity magazines. He cited Ronald Reagan, a staunch Second Amendment supporter, who in 1994 asked Congress to ban the manufacturing of assault weapons.

Obama said that type of firepower “has one purpose, to pump as many bullets as possible as quickly as possible, to do as much damage using bullets often designed to inflict maximum damage.”

But while those words paint things in black-and-white, finding common ground and laws that will reduce gun violence have proven to be difficult.

A Band-Aid solution

Concord police Chief John Duval summed up the complex nature of moving everyone in sync:

“Unless you eradicate every single weapon in an instant by the flip of a switch, you’re not going to prevent all situations from happening,” he said. “That’s not to say that new laws won’t mitigate the seriousness of future situations and maybe lives can be saved. Certainly there’s an argument for that, but the conversation as we move forward should be multifaceted. You can’t just look at banning this type of weapon or creating that type of law.”

Bob Lee, who’s owned Lee’s Gun Shop in Londonderry for seven years, said Obama is misguided, and he used last month’s Connecticut shooting to illustrate his point.

“I can take a pickup truck and fill it with fertilizer and some gasoline, and instead of 20 children killed, I could have flattened everyone in the school,” Lee said. “Getting rid of guns is not going to solve your problem. They tried to ban alcohol how many years ago? Did that go away?”

Scott Hilliard, the Merrimack County sheriff, has been in law enforcement for 34 years. While he praised Obama for his leadership at a time when the country is demanding answers, he said eliminating assault weapons is shortsighted, a Band-Aid solution that doesn’t go far enough.

“There is scientific evidence from the past where we’ve done this and it has not been effective,” Hilliard said. “I applaud the president for the start, but I think that within itself, banning high-capacity magazines and assault weapons, I don’t think is the answer to all of it.”

The problem, many say, is that banning specific weapons penalizes law abiding sportsmen, while criminals will pay no attention.

Lee was in kindergarten when his father taught him how to shoot. “The bad guys are bad guys,” Lee said. “You can put in 500 new laws, but why is the bad guy going to care? So who gets hurt? The guy like me, a recreational shooter and a hunter and a sportsman who does nothing wrong all his life. I have to give up my hobby, and I’m doing nothing wrong.”

Lee and Hilliard said the screening process needs scrutiny, something Obama addressed in his proposal. The president asked Congress to pass a law requiring universal background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm. The problem, Lee, Hilliard and others said, surfaces from private sales.

Lee cited a TV news piece in which $1,000 in weaponry was bought, with no formal registration process, from a private dealer during a gun show.

“I told an ATF inspector four years ago that if you want to get rid of the gun-show loophole that’s haunting you people, make it that all guns have to go through a dealer,” Lee said. “If you’re going to sell me a gun, I’m going to have to fill out paperwork like anyone who comes into my store who has to pass a background check. Now there’s a paper trail.”

Added Hilliard, “It’s not popular with the gun groups and sportsmen groups, but the mental health piece is a huge component to where this issue is, increasing access to mental health programs.”

Mental illness

That, Ken Norton said, is a long-standing problem that is often ignored by society. Norton, the executive director for the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said it’s easier to buy a gun than to make an appointment with a mental health professional.

And while Norton conceded that guns and mental illness can have deadly results, he added that the public is misinformed.

“I think it’s important to say that when you look at statistics, a very small amount of the gun violence occurs with people who have mental illness,” Norton said. “That doesn’t translate to how the media covers that.”

Norton said some killers are simply bad people, not mentally ill, and he used Osama bin Laden as an example. “I never heard anyone speculate that bin Laden had a mental illness,” Norton said. “I think it’s important that we at least make this distinction, that we assume people like the guy in the Connecticut shooting are mentally ill, and that isn’t always the case.”

Still, Duval, who issues permits to carry concealed weapons in the city, senses that mental illness plays enough of a role to cause concern. He walked a fine line while talking about safety and rights. He wants to know who’s potentially dangerous, but sometimes he can’t dig very far.

“I don’t want to get into a constitutional debate,” Duval said. “The bar is high for me to reject a gun permit for concealed carry. Someone has to be deemed mentally ill by a court in order for me to deny a permit.

“But the reality is a vast majority of folks who are under the care of a provider or a psychiatrist, because of privacy laws, this fact never gets known by the court or the police or anyone else. I have to think some of those folks should not be in possession of a weapon.”

Meanwhile, the debates raging in Congress and in most walks of life are products of the recent killings in Connecticut. Obama signed an executive order that gives schools the option to use federal grant money to hire a resource officer, who can carry a weapon.

Concord High and Merrimack Valley High both have them, and while the principals of those schools were unavailable for comment, Duval said, “I think they’ll tell you that they’re a great addition to their staffs and the benefits are far reaching.”

Duval was careful to add that a distinction exists between a police officer and a resource officer, who acts as a familiar and consistent presence, interacting with students, providing information and participating in activities.

The contrast was not lost on Tom Laliberte, principal at Loudon Elementary School, who said, “If I had my druthers, it would be good to have people here all the time, but not just in the capacity of being a guard. More as a member of our school community. I would love that, but I don’t want someone standing at the front door as a guard.”

Tiffany Nedeau of Concord is a 24-year-old mother with a 5-year-old at Beaver Meadow School. The school doesn’t employ an officer, and there wasn’t one working 20 years ago, when Nedeau was in kindergarten at Beaver Meadow.

Sitting in her truck at a local convenience store yesterday, Nedeau remembered that someone with a gun entered the school. Eating lunch at the time, she and her classmates were herded into the kitchen.

“I was one of those kids who did not understand why it was happening,” Nedeau said. “No one was hurt, but if someone was there for us, that may have prevented it from even happening. I think it would be awesome for a school that would be willing to have an officer working. I would have felt safer.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler
or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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