Gun control plan draws praise, scorn
President Barack Obama announced his much-anticipated gun violence reduction measures Wednesday, offering Watauga County residents and the nation a first glimpse at what life may be like in a post-Sandy Hook world.
The proposals were the culmination of a task force study led by Vice President Joe Biden that met with 229 groups to discuss the weighty topic of gun violence and ways to prevent it.
"While reducing gun violence is a complicated challenge, protecting our children from harm shouldn't be a divisive one," Obama said.
Seated in front of four children who wrote letters to the president urging him to act, Obama signed a list of 23 Executive Actions that will be enacted immediately and set the stage for a bitter fight in Congress.
The more controversial proposals -- universal background checks for gun buyers, a renewed ban on military-style assault weapons and a 10-round limit for magazines -- are not within the president's individual ability but must be considered by Congress.
"If there's even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try," Obama said.
Six of the 23 Executive Actions dealt with improving and expanding the use of background checks on gun buyers.
Sheriff Len Hagaman said the National Instant Criminal Background Check system that exists is strong, and he wasn't certain how it could be improved.
"If you spit on the sidewalk, it'll show up," he said. "It's kind of scary what all it knows."
If the check finds that the applicant has been convicted of a felony or of a crime with a more than one-year prison sentence, the permit cannot be issued.
But a background check and purchase permit is only used for handgun purchases from federally licensed dealers, and it doesn't apply to rifles, shotguns and antique weapons.
"If you went to your neighbor, and he had a handgun he wanted to sell you, you're supposed to get a permit -- but a lot of people don't go that route," Hagaman said.
Obama said that 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check and drew applause Wednesday when he urged Congress to change that rule.
Hagaman noted that restrictions on magazine capacity would be difficult to enforce -- "I know people who can make those in machine shops in two minutes," he said -- but that repairs to the mental health system are much-needed.
Another six of the 23 Executive Actions dealt with mental health. Those included clarifying that health care providers may ask about guns in the home and are not prohibited from reporting threats to law enforcement.
Billy West, CEO of Daymark Recovery Services, a mental health service provider in the region, said his employees are aware of their legal "duty to warn" law enforcement or potential victims when a client makes a credible threat to themselves or others -- and they exercise that duty when needed.
He estimated that it averages to less than five times a year for the more than 50,000 patients they serve in all of their service counties. They also have a lengthy voluntary or involuntary commitment process for those who show an immediate risk of harm to themselves or others.
West said he supported the Executive Action that will clarify which mental health services Medicaid must cover. North Carolina currently funds behavioral health services through Medicaid, but most people don't realize that decision is optional and could change, he said.
"I would like to see mental health services be taken off the optional list and put on the mandated list of services under Medicaid," West said.
He added that private insurers often model their plans off the federal government plans, so that step could have implications even for those who don't use Medicaid.
West added that most insurance plans have a minimal benefit for behavioral health, but it often has high deductibles, co-pays and limited provider networks.
He also said he believes that just because a person has received mental health help shouldn't automatically mean that they are barred from owning a gun. Most of Daymark's patients are "no different than you or I," he said.
"What makes someone unfit to carry a gun?" he said. "Going to see a mental health provider? Going to a psychiatric hospital? Going to see your general practitioner for an anti-depressant? None of these things should prohibit a law-abiding citizen of sound mind the ability to possess a firearm. ... In fact, it may discourage people from seeking behavioral health services in fear that they may be discriminated against later for seeking treatment for something as treatable as a mild depression."
School safety also made its way into at least three of the Executive Actions. The president urged proper training in "active shooter" scenarios for school officials, incentives for hiring school resource officers and the development of model emergency response plans for schools.
County Schools currently has a full-time SRO only at the high school.
Superintendent David Kafitz said he would consider parent input on whether additional officers were desired, but the school system isn't planning to add any in the immediate future.
"I would like further definition of what 'incentives' are, because again, looking at another tight budget year, there has to be a benefit to look at taking instructional money out of play to put into such an additional service," he said.
The schools also have incident plans and practice their lockdown procedures twice a year, he said.
The system also is considering measures outside of what the president suggested. Avery County Schools has asked Watauga to join it in bringing a national expert on school violence to the area for professional development with staff, Kafitz said.
The schools also are installing radio base stations at each school to ensure that they could communicate with the central office if phone and power lines failed.
They also may consider video surveillance in the schools that don't have it, changing entrances to better prevent unwanted visitors from waltzing in and other steps.
"I think the school resource officer provides a certain amount of presence and a certain amount of security, but there are certain things we might do that cost less," Kafitz said.
Several of the president's other orders involve further study of gun violence, its causes and new safety technology.
While representatives from the entertainment industry were involved in the discussions, none of the president's actions dealt with violent television shows, movies and video games.
But the toughest measures are still to come in Congress. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), among others, has pledged to introduce legislation next week that mirrors the Assault Weapons Ban that expired in 2004.
Local gun owners say ...
Gary Hoyle, vice president of the Watauga Gun Club and a firearms instructor, said he felt like he has a finger on the pulse of the community when it comes to gun control.
"This probably won't go over good in the county," he said.
He said he believed local gun owners would be most likely to support enhanced background checks above magazine or gun restrictions, but even that could irritate gun owners that barter and trade instead of buying from licensed dealers.
"They're looking at it as a possible infringement on their rights to bargain," Hoyle said.
Cassandra Hartley, a 23-year-old county resident who has been a gun owner for about two years, said she might support mental health evaluations as a prerequisite for all gun permits, not just concealed carry permits.
But she wondered about the effectiveness of more "senseless regulations."
"Putting rules in place are just going to stop the honest people; it's not going to stop the law-breakers," she said.