Top law enforcement officials in Surry County generally believe President Obama and other gun-control advocates are missing the mark.
“Really, guns are only the tool,” Sheriff Graham Atkinson said of acts of violence such as the recent mass shooting in Connecticut. “They don’t make the decision to kill someone — the people make the decision.”
Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson agreed that targeting the guns themselves is not a solution to such acts.
“If an individual has a mindset to kill or to maim others, they’ll find a way to do so,” Watson said. “If an individual has the motivation and the mindset to take life and cause serious injury, they can use any manner to do so.” A shotgun can be one of the deadliest weapons of all, the police chief pointed out.
In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, Obama has called for bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as part of a package of steps to reduce gun violence. He also is proposing expanded background checks for anyone buying a weapon, whether at a store, in a private sale, at an auction or during a convention.
Of the local law enforcement officials contacted, only Dobson Police Chief Shawn Myers favors the ban on assault rifles.
“As far as for me in particular, it’s fine with me, really, as far as the type of assault rifle they’re talking about,” Myers said, specifically mentioning the Bushmaster .223 model, one of the weapons used by the Connecticut shooter.
“The only thing they are good for is as a target-shooting gun,” the Dobson law official added. “People don’t hunt with them.”
Myers also is OK with the ban on high-capacity magazines, which make it easier for someone with murderous intent to kill more people in a shorter time. “It wouldn’t bother me to eliminate high-capacity magazines,” he said.
“But it’s mainly what the person is actually doing with the firearm or planning to do with the firearm that is the concern,” Myers clarified.
Repeated attempts to reach Pilot Mountain Police Chief Darryl Bottoms on the gun-control issue were unsuccessful.
Broader Scope Needed
Both the Surry sheriff and Mount Airy police chief consider gun bans as trampling on Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear firearms, something Chief Myers also was quick to support.
He said people should have the right to bear arms “if they need to or want to.”
Atkinson and Watson think stopping mass shootings requires more than just guns and should be viewed on a broader scale.
“What we are seeing is a knee-jerk reaction” to a deeper problem, Atkinson said of the recent gun-control push. Its latest chapter unfolded Saturday in Washington where nearly 1,000 people — including a group of Newtown residents — participated in a march in support of tougher measures on firearm ownership.
“My own personal opinion is an outright ban is just not the right way to go,” the Mount Airy police chief said of steps to curtail gun violence. “I don’t think that would take all considerations into play.”
Dealing with the issue also should include making mental health records of individuals more accessible, taking steps to achieve safer schools and something Sheriff Atkinson favors as well, expanded background checks — which Obama is proposing.
“I think those are positive things,” Watson said, specifically noting that opening up mental health records and tighter background checks would “make sure the right individuals have access to firearms.”
Myers, the Dobson police chief, also backs stricter policies on how guns are issued and to whom.
“My thing is, I don’t want felons to have them or people who are mentally ill to have guns,” Atkinson said. “That’s really the two categories I’m concerned about.”
He believes the key issue regarding violent acts is not which guns are available, but “the mental state of a person and what their intentions are.”
In favoring anyone besides convicted felons and the mentally ill legally bearing arms as they see fit to protect themselves, property and families, the sheriff cited several examples involving home-invasion and robbery suspects where doing so likely saved innocent lives.
One is a September 2010 incident at a former Neighbors convenience store on U.S. 52 south of Mount Airy where a customer shot an armed robber who had threatened a clerk with a handgun.
“There are legitimate needs for people to have ways to protect themselves and I just don’t think we ought to infringe on that,” the sheriff added.
He has seen increased demands for handgun and concealed-carry permits among Surry Countians, a process in which his office is involved. “And they continue every day.”
Atkinson also questions the motives of those calling for weapons bans. “What I think is happening is the same people who are talking about taking away people’s guns are the same people who don’t want to lock anyone up, either.”
While Watson backs the Second Amendment — calling it “a fundamental right” — he said there is a need for gun owners to be responsible and respectful of the regulations governing this privilege.
“Because that right is something so many individuals take for granted,” the city police chief added. “The ones who don’t (respect it) are the ones who have led us to where we are right now.”
In addition to local law enforcement officials, sheriffs across the nation have roundly blasted plans for restrictive federal gun legislation. All but one county sheriff in Utah and 30 of 33 of their counterparts in New Mexico have vowed to support the Constitution first and foremost.
As a result, those officials say they would not enforce the kind of gun ban backed by Obama.
Surry’s sheriff thinks recent fears among gun owners are probably unfounded from a logistical standpoint.
“There are so many guns out there and so many types of guns and millions and millions of them,” Atkinson said.
“The idea that anybody is going to take anybody’s guns is not even realistic at all,” added the sheriff, who is at a loss “to think about how you would do that.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.