Chiefs Speak Up On Guns

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In the aftermath of last month's deadly shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 small children and six adults were gunned down, and President Barack Obama's more recent proposals aimed at curbing gun violence, just about everyone has an opinion on what needs to be done.

But opinions differ greatly on how to solve a truly complex problem. The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that something is needed to protect innocents — particularly children — from another Newtown-type tragedy.

No one has given the matter more thought than law enforcement officials.

Last Thursday, 30 of the state's 33 county sheriff's traveled to the Roundhouse in Santa Fe to remind New Mexicans that they — sheriffs — are under oath to support the U.S. Constitution. And that, of course, includes the Second Amendment, which guarantees Americans' right to bear arms.

The sheriffs are concerned — to put it mildly — about Obama's proposals to ban assault rifles and magazine clips that hold more than 10 rounds. Torrance County Sheriff Heath White said he is watching "very closely" as events unfold.

"I want to reassure my citizens that I have their best interests in mind and I will do my job to the fullest extent," he said in Santa Fe. "As your sheriff, I have and will continue to carry out these two main responsibilities: supporting the United States and New Mexico Constitutions and enforcing the laws of the State of New Mexico to ensure public safety.

"Any federal regulations enacted by Congress or by executive order of the president offending the constitutional rights of my citizens shall not be enforced by me or by my deputies, nor will I permit the enforcement of any unconstitutional regulations or orders by federal officers within the borders of Torrance County, New Mexico."

Others voiced a similar message.

"We're not lawmakers, we're sheriffs," said Ken Christesen of San Juan County, chairman of the New Mexico Sheriffs Association. "That's what we do, is enforce the law and defend the Constitution. We want to make sure that your rights as a citizen are protected."

Background checks OK

The sheriffs did give their approval to at least one of the president's proposals, requiring background checks for all gun buyers, including purchases at gun shows and private sales, which currently are exempt.

Observing that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "reasonable" restrictions can be placed on the ownership of firearms, such as background checks, on Monday White said he agrees with such a regulation "100 percent." Moreover, he said, he would strengthen current background checks to include people who suffer from certain mental health problems.

The sheriff quickly added the last thing he wants to do is stigmatize anyone, recognizing that "we're all human and we all have some flaws." But, he said, over the years, certain behavioral patterns and situations have helped law enforcement officials, sociologists and medical experts define what might pose a danger to society.

But his ultimate job, White insisted, restating the position he staked out last week in Santa Fe, "is to uphold the Constitution and protect all citizens to make sure they retain those rights. Any executive order, or measure passed by Congress, cannot infringe on those rights. So this is not merely a gun-rights issue, it's a constitutional issue. It's the basics of the Constitution that can't be infringed on. Once you lose one (right) you start to lose others."

Any revisions to the nation's gun laws that infringe on Constitutional rights "cannot be enforced by the sheriff's department or by any of my deputies," White said. He would however, leave the ultimate authority on what constitutes "infringement" to the Supreme Court.

Doubts on passage

Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia said he agrees with some of Obama's proposals but doubts that Congress will be in any hurry to enact bans on assault weapons or ammo clips.

"I don't see that happening anytime soon," he said.

Earlier this month, in the first of three planned "gun buy-backs," Santa Fe police bought more than 200 firearms from area residents. The haul ranged from antiques to high-capacity handguns and included four assault weapons — one of which had been stolen.

Some New Mexico law enforcement officials have said that even though a national database exists that is aimed at preventing the mentally ill from acquiring guns, it needs strengthening.

Estancia Police Chief Jimmy Chavez agrees. He said the mental health question cannot be overlooked, and he lauded the administration for including mental health issues in its list of proposals.

Getting guns out of the hands of psychotic people and those prone to violence is key, he said. He noted that in Estancia, police have frequent run-ins with "certain people in our community" who, he feels, should not be allowed to carry firearms.

Describing Obama as an "obviously compassionate man," the chief nonetheless disagreed with most of the remaining administration proposals. "I can understand where the president is coming from," he said, "… I just don't see this being the answer."

"Caught in the middle"

Asked about the proposed ban on assault rifles such as one used in the Newtown massacre, Chavez was conflicted. He said there is no way for him to separate his personal opinions on the Second Amendment from those he has as a police chief.

"I do believe in the right to bear arms," he said.

He said that while he is "not per se against reintroducing the 1990s ban on assault rifles," he is not convinced that ban accomplished what it set out to do — reduce gun violence.

"My concern is, 'What's the next step, as far as the Second Amendment is concerned?'" Chavez asked, echoing a concern voiced by White and the other sheriffs. "What's the next weapon that'll be targeted?"

While assault rifles might be behind some heinous crimes, he said, in and of themselves they may not be the root of the problem. "My opinion is that the matter needs to be handled more on the mental health side of it. Assault rifles are only the symptom."

An AR-15 military-style assault rifle, one of the guns the president would ban, was among the weapons used by the 15-year-old boy who shot and killed his parents and three young siblings last week in Albuquerque's South Valley. (Chavez spoke to the Telegraph before that shooting.)

The chief said he feels much the same about the president's proposal to limit magazine clips to those that hold no more than 10 rounds. The next course of action could well be to limit the number of clips a person can hold, he said.

However, Chavez said, he fully supports Obama's call for universal background checks on gun purchasers.

"If you are going to bear a weapon, you should be a citizen in good moral standing, not a felon," he said.

Last week, Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, introduced legislation that would make it a felony for any government official or gun dealer to try to enforce federal gun laws in New Mexico. The bill has 10 cosponsors and similar measures have been introduced in at least three other states. Chavez said such efforts are misguided.

"If the federal government passes it, well, they're the higher authority in the chain of command and we'd be obliged to follow — irrespective of how we might feel about it," he said.

In a telephone interview on Monday, Edgewood Police Chief James Daniels also said his obligation is to enforce the law and that he would leave the legal interpretation of the Second Amendment to others.

"If it's the law of the land, we'll enforce it," he said. For example, if a federal law that limits clip capacity passes, Daniels said it would be a hard for police to enforce. Clips purchased before the ban would likely still be legal, and neither the purchaser nor the dealer must keep a record of the purchase.

"How do you enforce that?" he asked. "How do you prove that, one way or another?"

Although he wouldn't give his personal opinion about gun control issues, Daniels did said that he is watching the issue closely.

"Law enforcement is kind of caught in the middle," he said.

Telegraph staff writer Lee Ross contributed to this article.

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