California Sheriff's Letter to Vice President Joe Biden
California State Sheriffs’ Association
Organization Founded by the Sheriffs in 1894
February 7, 2013
The Honorable Joe Biden
Vice President of the United States
Old Executive Office Building
Washington, DC 20501
Dear Mr. Vice President:
On behalf of the California State Sheriffs’ Association (CSSA), I write to express our thoughts regarding the recent school shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. As the chief law enforcement officers in our respective counties, it is our duty to protect the members of our communities and preserve individual rights and freedoms. It is the position of CSSA, in accordance with the Constitution of the United States and the statutes of the State of California, that law-abiding persons who meet the established requirements have the right to acquire, own, possess, use, keep and bear firearms. This right shall not be infringed. In support of our mission to advance public safety, we understand the desire to have a national dialogue on effective ways to prevent gun violence.
California has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, yet incidents of gun violence continue to plague our state. We must continue to take steps to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. More attention to the mentally ill and the mental health systems in this country must be addressed.
Our country’s mental health systems do not adequately serve the mentally ill or society. California’s correctional facilities have become de facto mental health institutions, as have prisons and jails in many other states. Our correctional facilities were never designed to provide mental health services, yet we find ourselves doing the best we can to address the needs of the mentally ill in our jails. Instead of incarcerating those with mental illness and subjecting them and society to a revolving-door system, increased funding and additional resources should be made available for our mental health systems.
The primary issue we face is an access problem. Criminals and persons with severe mental illness and/or substance abuse problems should not have access to firearms. Residents across the country have an expectation that local law enforcement agencies currently have access to mental health records and other information that would reveal “prohibitors” about gun permit applicants and individuals submitting to background checks (i.e., factors that would make gun ownership illegal or prompt further background checks). Most in law enforcement agree that the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) is woefully under-developed. Participation by the states is not mandatory, and not all relevant records are accessible. For example: Only an estimated one-quarter of felony convictions are currently available in the system, and; Through 2010, only 28 states had submitted a limited number of court judgments of dangerous mental illness, when at the same time, the National Center for State Courts estimated there should have been as many as 2 million disqualifying mental illness records in the NICS database.
If we are to avoid future tragedies and more fully protect the public, mental health issues in the context of gun ownership must be central to the national discussion. Too often, we have seen shooting incidents that involve seriously mentally ill people, many of whom are untreated or under-treated. Untreated mental illness in the United States manifests itself in long lines at emergency rooms, long waits for an insufficient number of psychiatric beds, dramatic increases in victimization and homelessness, greater demand on law enforcement officers who have essentially become front-line mental health workers, and most significantly, an increase in the number of acts of violence – including homicides – committed by mentally ill people who are not being properly treated.
The protection of our communities is our primary mission. To help us do that more effectively, CSSA recommends that more resources be made available to strengthen the NICS databases. Furthermore, additional treatment resources and placement options for substance abusers, the mentally ill and family members who need help must be provided before an act of violence, an arrest, or an attempted suicide occurs. We also see a need for more peace officers in our schools and our communities. We recognize there are no easy answers to the problem of gun violence, but all of us need to seek solutions that will produce a safer country for all Americans.
Thank you for your consideration of our concerns and recommendations. The Sheriffs of California stand ready to provide insight and assistance in formulating policy on this important matter.
Keith Royal, CSSA President Sheriff, Nevada County
cc: All Sheriffs Carmen Green, CSSA Deputy Executive Director Nick Warner, CSSA Legislative Director Martin Mayer, CSSA General Counsel