WASHINGTON – Law enforcement leaders who met with President Barack Obama on Monday urged him to focus on strengthening gun purchase background checks and mental health systems, but did not unify behind his more controversial gun control efforts.
The message from sheriffs and police chiefs gathered at the White House reflected the political reality in Congress that the assault weapons ban in particular is likely to have a hard time winning broad support.
“We’re very supportive of the assault weapons ban,” as police chiefs, said Montgomery County, Md., police Chief J. Thomas Manger in an interview with the Associated Press. “But I think everybody understands that may be a real tough battle to win. And one of the things that the president did say is that we can’t look at it like we have to get all of these things or we haven’t won.”
Opinions over an assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity magazines – two measures the president supports – were divided in the room.
“I think what was made clear was that gun control in itself is not the salvation to this issue,” said Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald of Story County, Iowa, one of 13 law enforcement leaders who met with the president, vice president and Cabinet members for more than an hour, seated around a conference table in the Roosevelt Room.
Among the participants were three chiefs who responded to the worst shootings of 2012, including Aurora, Colo., where 12 were killed in July; Oak Creek, Wis., where six died in an assault on a Sikh temple; and Newtown, Conn., scene of the most recent mass tragedy that left 20 first-graders dead.
In a brief statement to reporters, Obama urged Congress to pass an assault weapons ban, limit high-capacity magazines and require universal background checks for would-be gun owners. But participants said after the media were escorted from the room that the focus was not on the assault weapons ban.
“He did not ask us if we do or do not support an assault weapons ban,” said Hennepin County, Minn., Sheriff Richard Stanek, president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association. “He did not ask us if we do or do not support high-capacity magazines.
“I told him very candidly that this isn’t just about gun control alone,” Stanek said. He said the bigger issue is that the Justice Department’s system for background checks is incomplete since many states don’t report mental health data or felony convictions.
Fitzgerald said the mental health system needs to be better funded because jails across the country are becoming “dumping grounds for the mentally ill.”