Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek is in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with the Obama administration to talk about gun violence legislation.
Stanek has attended a handful of meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials since the Newtown school shooting to offer his thoughts on what kind of legislation would best reduce gun violence. Stanek, who is also the president of the Major County Sheriffs' Association, is not in support of all of the proposals that have come from the Obama administration.
Below is an edited transcript of Stanek's conversation with The Daily Circuit's Tom Weber:
Stanek: But the sheriffs of this country want to continue to focus on reducing gun violence and we think that resonates with the American public. That's what they've told their elected officials in this country -- invest your time and effort in ways to reduce gun violence -- so we'll continue to do that. We've identified a number of issues and concerns that would help reduce extreme gun violence in this country while at the same time absolutely preserving the right of American citizens to keep and bear arms.
Weber: Is your belief that if you focus on that issue -- the background check issue -- that actually would have a bigger impact as far as reducing violence?
Stanek: Yes. It is my belief that if we continue to focus on closing some of the gaping holes in the current system we have in place. Such as, only 12 states on a regular basis contribute their public mental health records to the federal database called National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), only 25 percent of conviction data gets into the database. That's what the American public did not know. That's what America's sheriffs and the president and his administration and our state legislators across the country can do right now. Keep guns out of the hands of people who should not possess or own a firearm.
Weber: Is the key that you would like to see federal legislation to force more states to contribute their data to the database? Or is the issue that not enough people are getting background checks when they buy a gun?
Stanek: The first part is a state's rights issue. There are things that the federal government can do to encourage states to contribute their public mental health records and shore up some of the holes in conviction data being reported to the NICS system. These are things that the American public already believes are being done. That's what the NICS system was founded on. But the fact of the matter is that they are not. We've identified time and again gaps in the current system. The public policy makers are going to expand gun control legislation, that's up to them, but I don't know if the American public buys into that. Here are things that we've identified that we can do right here and now to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not be able to possess or own them.
Weber: Is some of this being addressed by the couple of states that have taken action on their own?
Stanek: There are a couple states like Connecticut, Colorado and others that are considering legislation, even back here in Minnesota. Minnesota started out with all sorts of ideas about universal background checks, assault weapons ban, limiting high capacity magazines, but they quickly fell by the wayside as there was not the political support from the residents of the state. Sheriffs, judiciary, law enforcement in general have always said from day one is that these are simple and easy fixes that we can do that will reduce the flow of guns - and insure when we do a background check on someone that they are timely and accurate.
Weber: Is this what you're proposing because it's more politically feasible to do and that the other ideas just aren't as good ideas that would reduce as much violence?
Stanek: America's law enforcement have said from day one, these tragedies occur, but the fact is they occur across our country each and every day. If you want to reduce the incidence of gun violence, count us in at the table. If you want to limit the rights of law abiding citizens, not so much. That's the bottom line. This issue of gun ownership, we believe, is not a privilege but a right guaranteed by the Constitution.
Weber: The first time you met with officials was with the vice president back in December after the task force was created after the Newtown shootings. What's changed in the atmosphere of the meetings?
Stanek: I give due credit to the president and the cabinet, the vice president, for allowing local law enforcement officers to come to the table to have these tough discussions. In the beginning, law enforcement came to the table to discuss ways to reduce the incidence of gun violence across America. Some of the discussions quickly digressed into gun control measures across America. Those gun control measures have not taken off and have not received traction and now you see four months after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, as tragic as it was, more of a reality coming to the table. We've identified these gaping holes in the current background check system from day one. We're asking to rectify and fix this so when people come to apply for a permit to purchase or carry a weapon, that the American public and the citizens of Minnesota, that it's insured to be timely and accurate information.
Weber: Back in December after your first meeting with the vice president, you noted that another thing you brought up at the meeting were the challenges dealing with the mentally ill, especially in jails, and what your officers see in the street related to that. What conversations are being had on that topic and what might happen on the national level?
Stanek: That's absolutely still at the forefront as well. Sen. Lindsey Graham has a piece of federal legislation that would address that on behalf of American law enforcement. Those who have untreated severe mental illness should never have access to firearms. That's part of the NICS background system. Those public mental health records are adjudicated by the courts through due process. We're not asking for people to tell us if they've ever been to see a counselor or chemical dependency treatment if not ordered by the courts. We're asking for the public records, to make those available to law enforcement as is currently in law so we can make those good decisions on behalf of the community as a whole.
Weber: There are already laws that prevent people with severe mental illness from having guns.
Stanek: That's correct. But all you have to do is look at the Chris Oberender case out in Carver County from 1995 to just a few months ago when it came to light. How did a young man at age 15 who murdered his mother in cold blood go on to be able to acquire legally and lawfully a number of handguns and long guns. It's not public whether he has a permit to carry, but how is he able to do that when just about 15 years ago he shot and killed his mother. Why wasn't that record in the public domain where it was supposed to be?
Weber: You're talking about the NICS system, about how not enough states contribute their own local data on commitments and criminal convictions. Is this the same database that is catching the ire of some groups who say this is a way to make a national database of gun owners and the government will know exactly who owns a gun.
Stanek: The NICS background check system was fully supported by the NRA and others when it was put into place over a decade ago. People have different spins on it as far as registering firearms universally. That is something that hasn't been supported across the board and probably one of things that Congress and the state legislatures across the U.S. are still wrangling with. Back here in Minnesota, law enforcement relies on the conviction data and the public mental health records when we go to check on someone to see whether they should be able to possess a firearm. Our decisions as chiefs and sheriffs in this state are reliant on the federal database and the information that's in there. That's not right. We should be able to say with confidence that a person is able to get that permit to purchase or carry a firearm and know that the information is accurate and timely.
Weber: You've served in the state legislature. What do you think are the prospects for any kind of congressional action related to guns this year?
Stanek: It's going to be very tough if the conversation keeps digressing to gun control when we started off discussing gun violence. If you remember back in December the conversation was about reducing extreme gun violence across America. Some folks interjected what would be perceived as gun control proposals and virtually stopped dead in their tracks. Now as time moves on there are some very good things we can do in those initial ideas and thoughts, like the ones I brought forward, are being revisited. If you look at Minnesota, the proposals that I and the other sheriffs in the state have outlined are the two proposals that are still moving forward in the House and the Senate - and that is closing the gaping holes in the current background check system without expanding it further.