Police Chief: Mental Health Needs To Be Bigger Part Of Gun Control Debate

Wakefield Police Chief Rick Smith told Wakefield Patch Thursday that when handling gun permit requests, police only get to see if an individual spent time in a state-run institution - not a private or out of state one.

In recent days, President Barack Obama and Governor Deval Patrick have both offered gun control proposals amid a renewed debate over the issue following the Sandy Hook shootings last month.

With this in mind, Wakefield Patch checked in with Wakefield Police Chief Rick Smith this week to ask for his perspectives as a local law enforcement official when it comes to gun violence and gun control.

Smith reports that in Wakefield, police will deny a gun permit if there is reason to believe the applicant is questionable in some way. "It's not a given," said the Chief about applying for a firearms permit in town. Department procedures for permitting are basically in accordance with state laws, he added.

Number Of Permits Up For 2012

In a separate inquiry this week with Wakefield Police, Lieutenant Craig Calabrese reported that in 2012, the department issued 331 permits, while in 2011, that number stood at 296.

Mental Health A Missing Key To Current Debate

Still, Chief Smith noted that when it comes to crime and gun violence, "those legal guns are not the problem."

In fact, the Chief also said that when it comes to the current debate over gun control, "the biggest piece for policing is that mental health piece. That's where the issue is."

Specifically, Chief Smith said that under the current system, local police only see if an individual has spent time in a state-run psychiatric institution. If they have been in a private one or in an out of state facility, they do not currently have access to that information. In some ways, this is comparable to the ongoing discussion of how to reform loopholes in sex offender registration laws to better manage threats posted by Level 1 offenders who can more easily stay under the radar.

In a followup email for a separate article that will appear on Lynnfield Patch, Lynnfield Police Chief David Breen said that he agreed with Chief Smith - but also noted that significant progress in this area will probably have to come from the federal level.

"I believe there needs to be better information sharing between states. However, that probably wont happen unless there is a federal mandate because each state has vastly different laws regarding gun ownership," wrote Chief Breen in an email.

Along with his role as Wakefield Chief of Police, Smith is also Middlesex County's executive committee member for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. He reported that this organization expects a number of pieces of legislation on this issue in the foreseeable future and will look at them. He cited recent legislation from Natick State Rep. David Linsky (D) as a "pretty encompassing" bill.

In regard to current gun control proposals, Smith said that he favors getting high capacity ammo magazines off the streets, and he also favors reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons. However, the Chief also noted that "nothing would have stopped the tragedy in Newtown" in light of the current gun control proposals and also in light of the fact that the gunman was simply as determined as he was to commit mass murder.

"We can ban all day, but until we get that mental health area cleared up, we're missing a huge piece," said Chief Smith.

For a complete look at Massachusetts laws regarding gun permitting, click here.

A. G. January 19, 2013 at 04:07 AM
Is there any evidence to support Chief Smith's belief that mental health treatment and violence are related, or is it purely conjecture? If the biggest issue in the Chief's mind is mental illness, I have to question his reasoning. Shouldn't he be focusing on dangerousness??


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