Even as residents continue to line up to apply for gun and carry/conceal permits, the county’s law enforcement chiefs are lining their sights on mental health issues that they say are the far bigger problem when it comes to tragedies like those that have occurred in Newtown, Aurora and other parts of the country.
As many as 60 residents a week are currently applying for permits, so many, in fact, that the Sheriff’s Department has had to cut back on times when they will actually hand them out. Now, those seeking applications — or checking on permits — must come in the office Tuesday,Wednesday or Thursday, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., to get them. None will be handed out or accepted on Mondays and Fridays, according to Sgt. Robbie Carter.
Residents have been flocking to get their permits ever since word broke that President Barack Obama was trying to get new gun control laws passed through Congress. It hasn’t happened yet, but locals aren’t taking any chances.
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton and Clinton Police Chief Jay Tilley see no problem with law-abiding citizens getting their permits or owning guns. In fact, they see mental health issues as the area that needs tackling first, long before the government tries to tamper with what both call already good laws.
“Certainly we’ve got to make sure we don’t put guns in the hands of individuals with a prison record or mental health issues, but I think the laws we currently have take care of that,” said Thornton. “We need due diligence through background checks, and I think a really good job is being done with that. But we are missing the point, if we’re looking at banning guns.”
Thornton said it is the rapidly rising mental health issues that exist in Sampson and “everywhere else,” that are being left to fester and are often the driving force behind many crimes that occur, including mass murders like those that have taken places at schools and movie theaters of late.
“There’s a lot of mental illness out there,” Thornton attested. “We deal with it every day, and I know what I’m talking about. Our numbers right here in this county are high, and I’m certain it’s that way across the nation. It’s difficult for people to get the help they need today, and that needs to change.”
Tilley agrees. “We’ve got great folks working in mental health fields here; they just don’t have enough resources to deal with the problems that exist. And something needs to be done about those problems. I think they are escalating and there’s really no solution in sight.”
Thornton believes the existing process for permitting those who want guns is an effective one. “A thorough job is done on background checks in my opinion. I’m not aware of any loopholes that exist. There may be, and if there are, they need to be eliminated, but it’s usually not those who have a permit that commit the kind of mass murders we are talking about.”
Those with any kind of blemish on their record, the sheriff pointed out, aren’t given a permit; it’s as simple as that.
“Really, you’ve got to be squeaky clean to get a carry/conceal permit. If you have any kind of criminal history, a pattern of mental illness, those kinds of things will show up when we do the checks.”
But Thornton and Tilley said it’s usually not those who go through the proper channels that end up with guns and then use those guns to commit crimes.
“I’m not sure there’s an answer to keeping them out of the hands of criminals,” Tilley admitted. “Usually the weapons they have in their possession are stolen or they get it from a family member.”
Thornton said it was rare for anyone to come to his department to get a permit if they’ve have a bad record. “You just don’t see that. It’s rare to have someone come in that’s got even the slightest blemish on their record because they know it would automatically disqualify them.”
“It’s not legal gun owners that are usually the problem,” the sheriff stressed. “It’s the criminal element out there that is getting their hands on weapons, and, of course, those with mental issues, addictions, those kind of things that have access to weapons as well.”
And putting the spotlight on those mental health issues needs to be a top priority, not taking guns out of the hands of residents, the two top law enforcement officers stress.
While both Thornton and Tilley acknowledge that guns in the wrong hands cause problems, they say that’s the easy target for a much larger problem.
“Guns are the obvious problem,” the police chief said, “because a gun is used to do heinous acts, but is it the root of the problem? I really don’t think so, not alone, anyway. When you delve into it, you see that mental health is always at the top of the list and then, of course, how they got the weapon. And most of the time, the how is that the circumvent the law in some way.”
Mental health issues, the two said, run the gamut and include issues that arise from those addicted to alcohol, drugs or, in many cases, both.
“Over time, we’ve seen less and less money set aside to deal with mental health issues,” Thornton said. “We used to have mental health centers in every county, now we have regional ones. The folks that work in this area do a great job, but limited funds means limited care, it’s just that simple. You can only do what you have the money to do.”
Thornton said the very nature of drug and alcohol addiction makes it difficult for the habits to be kicked without avenues for extended assistance, something not readily available any more.
“Look, you can have someone committed and before the paper work is done, they can be out again,” Tilley said.
Thornton agrees. “On a voluntary commitment, a person is lucky to be there three days. You don’t cure someone in three days.”
With 20-25 percent of all cases handled by the Sheriff’s Department stemming from some type of mental health issue, Thornton said, it’s a good sign that there’s a serious problem.
“It’s a telling sign and one that we don’t need to keep ignoring,” Thornton said.
While both admit there is no easy solution to the mental health problems that exists, Thornton and Tilley said it is time for the issue to be closely scrutinized.
“It should be given the attention that guns are given, if not more so. The thing is, it costs a lot of money to treat people … but in my estimation it’s worth every dime. It can fix a lot of problems, but then again, do we ever deal with the true problem,” Thornton said. “We don’t; we usually just deal with the symptoms.”