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The gun conundrum 

Local leaders talk firearms, school safety, and mental health

America has seen entirely too many deranged gunmen rampage through public places—often schools—leaving bodies, traumatized witnesses, and shattered families in their wake. But there was something different about the slaughter in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. The children were so young, so undeniably innocent, that people seem to have finally had enough.

In a country of short attention spans, gun violence has remained at the forefront of the national debate for three months and doesn’t show any signs of waning. People everywhere are struggling to understand what, if anything, can be done to reduce the frequency of such events and hopefully keep them from happening ever again. Vice President Joe Biden quickly launched a campaign for federal laws requiring universal background checks and waiting periods for firearm purchases and a complete ban on assault rifles. The proposals are similar to laws already enforced in California.

In January, the social action committee for San Luis Obispo’s Congregation Beth David met in an effort to define their stance on the issue, but the 12-member group found they had a murky understanding of California gun laws, the local state of school safety and mental health problems, and law enforcement’s current ability to respond to a massacre. Committee co-chair Elie Axelroth told New Times that instead of basing any potential action on their initial emotional response, the group decided to organize a panel discussion with local experts to get a clear picture of the county’s relationship with firearms.

“The goal, really, is to become informed citizens,” Axelroth said. “We don’t want a contentious debate on gun control.”

Sheriff Ian Parkinson agreed to represent law enforcement, and Deputy District Attorney Greg Devitt offered his legal expertise. Julian Crocker, the SLO County superintendent of schools, was brought onboard to discuss campus safety and response plans, and Jill Bolster-White, executive director of Transitions Mental Health, rounded out the panel for insight on ways to prevent shooting sprees before they occur. Former San Luis Obispo Chief of Police Deborah Linden moderated the discussion, which took place March 11 and included written questions from the audience.

In a more candid moment, Parkinson urged the audience not to seek quick fixes to a multi-layered problem.

“We have to wade through the emotional reaction and get to a logical reaction,” Parkinson said. “This is a very complex problem. … Let’s not get carried away with overregulation.”

Much of the talk centered on the process of purchasing and registering guns in California and which people aren’t allowed to own such weapons. Parkinson explained that the state’s rules changed in 2000, and now every firearm sale must be processed through a licensed dealer, who would perform a background check, register the weapon with state and federal authorities, and force the buyer to wait a minimum of 10 days before taking the gun home. Buyers must also pass a 25-question safety test. All these rules apply whether the gun is bought at a store, sold from one person to another, or purchased at a gun show.

Devitt outlined the rules regarding who can own which types of firearms, noting that any felony and some violent misdemeanor convictions will flag a person and prevent him or her from legally acquiring guns. The same is true of people under restraining orders and those who have involuntarily spent time in psychiatric institutions within the last five years, Devitt said.

Many people, however, legally owned guns before the state said they couldn’t, and the agency charged with collecting the weapons is too broke to get the job done. Senate Bill 140 is working its way through the state legislature now and would shift $24 million to the effort, allowing the California Department of Justice to hire 36 agents to investigate the 19,000 plus people suspected of illegal gun ownership. The bill was approved by the senate on March 7, but must still clear the assembly and the governor’s office.

Other bills under discussion could require people to report missing firearms (SB 299) or keep weapons in lock boxes if a roommate or family member is prohibited from owning them (SB 363), Devitt noted.

For the most part, assault weapons are illegal in California, but exceptions exist under special circumstances (active peace officers and weapons that were grandfathered in). According to the California Department of Justice, 1,252 assault weapons were registered in SLO County between 1990 and 2001, the last year they were legal. A department spokesperson said that firearm dealers performed 7,802 background checks for SLO County gun transactions in 2011. The total number of guns registered to county residents wasn’t available.

Tracking the illegal use of those weapons also proved a challenge. New Times requested records from every law enforcement agency in the county pertaining to the number of fatalities, injuries, arrests, and calls that involved firearms in 2012, but sheriff and SLO police department officials said they’d have to read through every case to provide the complete information.

Among the remaining city departments, there were 176 calls, mostly for unconfirmed shots heard; 22 arrests; and 14 injuries or deaths, mostly accidents and suicides.

Bolster-White said 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, usually committed by men—and that wasn’t her only alarming statistic. Mental illness will affect 20 to 25 percent of all people, she said, but only 40 percent of those will seek treatment. For the most part, the mentally ill participate in fewer violent crimes than the general population, accounting for just 3 to 5 percent. Young men with schizophrenia and substance abuse problems are the only subset of the mentally ill with a significantly higher propensity toward violence, according to Bolster-White.

Some states have passed laws that raise the threshold for doctor/patient confidentiality and encourage therapists to notify law enforcement when they see certain warning signs, but Bolster-White worried that their efforts would backfire.

“The worst outcome is people being afraid to seek mental health treatment,” Bolster-White said. “The people we’re talking about are those outside of treatment.”

To that end, her staff is working on a mental health first aid program that would train the public to guide suffering friends and even strangers toward treatment.

Concerning schools, Crocker said that each campus is required by law to have an emergency safety plan, but until recently, they focused on natural disasters. Teachers and students now lock themselves inside classrooms with the window blinds closed as soon as shots are reported in the vicinity. Drilling these measures revealed a lot of issues, Crocker said, like doors that don’t lock and windows without coverings. Most schools have an automatic dialer system to inform parents about emergencies, Crocker said. His office didn’t have information regarding which schools didn’t use such systems.

Crocker said schools work closely with police departments to ensure officers are aware of campus procedures and that they have working keys, but he called for a shift in campus culture toward adults taking responsibility for students who feel bullied or alienated. He absolutely opposed the idea that teachers should carry guns or pepper spray.

“Physical security issues are important, but I’d put my money on internal things we can do to encourage emotional development,” Crocker said. “Teachers are much more equipped to help with that than to carry mace.”

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at

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