Police views on gun control vary— Many officers for background checks
- Published: March 14, 2013
This is the fifth in our series “Guns and the Village.”
Click here to see all the articles in the series.
On Jan. 28 five young men between the ages of 19 and 23 entered a home on Victoria Avenue in Fairborn to purchase marijuana. During the transaction, one of the visitors threatened the residents with a weapon and attempted to rob them. Instead, the resident pulled out his own gun and shot two of the visitors, injuring one and killing the other, Ta’Vaun Fambrough, a 19-year-old Central State University freshman.
Though the “weapon” brandished by the invaders was a plastic gun, a Greene County grand jury chose not to indict the resident in Fambrough’s death. According to Ohio’s Castle Law, passed in 2008, a person may use deadly force if he reasonably believes it necessary to protect himself or another from bodily harm in his home.
According to Fairborn Sergeant Paul Hicks in an interview last week, some plastic guns are virtually indistinguishable from real guns, and the Fairborn resident, believing his life to be in danger, used his own gun lawfully.
“According to the Ohio Castle doctrine, he had every right to do so,” Hicks said.
According to police personnel in the area, guns have never been easier to acquire than they are today. Evidenced by the spike in guns sales and concealed carry permits across the country, gun ownership appears to be on the rise. While the level of crime in the Greene County and Springfield area hasn’t changed as a result of increased demand for firearms, according to some law enforcement officials, the outcome of violence may be influenced by the prevalence of guns.
“In society today, people in today’s society are quick to use firearms to solve differences of opinion,” Springfield Police Chief Stephen Moody said last week. “It used to be fistfights, but now people just pull out their guns — a lot of times with fatal results.”
While police see that most gun owners are law-abiding citizens who use their firearms in a responsible manner, many officers are concerned with the small population of people with guns who shouldn’t have access to them. Many favor a better background check system to help keep guns out of the hands of known criminals and the mentally ill. Some also express concern with the low level of training and safety measures gun owners are required to fulfill to ensure safe use of their weapons. Police themselves must complete regular training to carry their weapons safely, after all, and the general public would be well served to do the same, some say.
And though police acknowledge that laws that aren’t effective or cannot be reasonably enforced are of little use, some officers believe that some change is needed to avoid the unthinkable acts of violence that the country has suffered because of guns.
“I don’t know what solutions are going to come, but obviously something needs to be done,” Hicks said, speaking for himself, not for his department.
Local gun crime
Last week state attorney general Mike DeWine announced that Ohio issued 78,000 concealed carry licenses last year, more than any year since the licenses became available in 2004. And yet according to many local law enforcement officers, Greene County, including Yellow Springs, remains a peaceful place to live, relatively safe from gun crime.
Though he only recently joined the local police department, Yellow Springs Police Chief Tony Pettiford has lived in the village most of his life and isn’t personally aware of any serious gun-related incidents in Yellow Springs. The most recent attempted bank robbery at WesBanco in March last year involved two handgun-style pellet guns, and no shots were fired. But local police have always had in the property room weapons they’ve seized from people who were carrying them improperly, according to former Yellow Springs Police Chief John Grote.
Per the Ohio Supreme Court’s preemption decision in 2007, federal and state laws regulate the possession, sale, use and transport of guns. According to the Ohio Revised Code, for instance, residents are not permitted to carry a gun while under disability, such as intoxication, or sell or give a gun to someone known to be mentally ill. Police occasionally take weapons from the scene of a domestic violence incident, for instance, and family members of gun owners sometimes surrender weapons to police voluntarily, according to Grote. But crimes involving guns in the village are exceptionally rare, both chiefs agreed.
Gun-related crime in Greene County in general is also low. And what crime there is usually involves handguns. Beavercreek, population 45,000, has had 15 armed robberies over the past four years, all but one involving handguns. The exception was a toy gun, according to Beavercreek Police Captain Jeff Fiorita. The city cites less than a dozen people per year with using weapons under disability, including a recent rash of two in one weekend at the end of February. Accidents are rare, but they do occur, such as one this year in which a man was maneuvering his weapon in his home and shot himself in the hand. Homicides in the city are few and far between, according to Fiorita. The most recent incident in January 2012 involved a mentally ill man, Pardeep Saini, 31, suspected of killing his father in his home with a handgun. Deemed competent enough under involuntary medication, Saini is expected to stand trial for the crime in April.
Xenia, population 25,000, and Fairborn, 33,000, are smaller but denser, and are each accustomed to a couple of armed robberies every year and perhaps one to two homicides, according to Xenia Police Captain Scott Anger and Fairborn Police Sergeant Paul Hicks. The violent crime usually involves criminals who are associated with each other, such as a targeted home invasion or revenge shooting, and they often involve drugs, both officers said. Again, the weapons are typically handguns, they said. The Fairborn incident involving Fambrough was a targeted home invasion between acquaintances, as was the second most recent gun-related death in Fairborn.
Compared to the more rural areas of Greene County, Springfield is about twice the size of Fairborn, and has experienced a comensurately higher rate of gun crime, according to Springfield Chief Moody. In the first three months of this year alone, Springfield has experienced 21 armed robberies, most involving a handgun, and perhaps 15 involving the same suspect. In 2012 the city had five homicides, four in 2011, and 11 in 2008, the highest year on record, though violent crime actually went down by 19 percent in 2012 from the previous year. Moody doesn’t perceive a correlation between crime in the city and the uptick in gun sales and concealed carry licenses, he said last week. And while calls from residents hearing “gunshots fired” have increased, as well as citations for improper concealed carry, Moody attributes that more to the proactive policing of his force. Still, he said, police are finding a lot of guns that need to be seized.
“There’s not a week goes by that we haven’t taken guns off the street.”
Contributors to gun crime
Gun crime in the area does exist, but even police, whose job it is to try and prevent it, can only guess at what to do to stop or reduce it. And not all law enforcement personnel agree on what measures are likely to work. Some said that a better system of background checks is a must, while others said increased mental health funding would be most effective in keeping guns out of the wrong hands. And several officers said that laws that don’t actually work to stem crime shouldn’t be instituted in the first place.
In his opinion, Grote believes that several changes in the law could do something to curb the current gun violence.
“Limiting magazine capacity is a start,” he said. Ohio currently limits the legal magazine capacity to 30 cartridges, but Grote feels that limit should be reduced. Though in 1991 the Village began limiting the magazine capacity on assault rifles villagers can own to 20 cartridges (and it still exists in the Village code), the 2007 preemption ruling made the local regulation null and void. Grote also believes that background checks should be required for all gun sales (currently guns purchased at gun shows or on the internet do not require complete background checks). And he advocates increased screening of gun buyers to reduce opportunities for the mentally ill, felons and children to acquire guns.
“People having handguns to protect their homes is one thing, but there seems to be a common thread with the high-capacity military rifles used in mass shootings,” he said. “The AR-style rifle is the highest selling gun in the country, and that’s tough to deal with — I don’t know how to reverse that.”
Springfield Chief Moody also believes that stronger background checks should be instituted, especially at gun shows. He believes that proactive policing, much like his department’s “Justice, Action and Mercy” hot-spot crime reporting program, is more effective than constantly reacting to unknown situations.
But many people throughout the county own all manner of firearms for hunting, target shooting, collecting and dealing, and most abide by the rules and manage them safely without incident, according to Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer. Limiting gun rights will only affect those who are already following the law, thereby doing little to stop the criminals, he said. Taking away guns from legal owners is not an effective way to make the county safer, Fisher said.
Xenia’s Captain Anger doesn’t see any correlation between gun control and gun crime in his city either. Most of the violence he sees occurs between criminal actors who are already violating the law in multiple ways. In fact, Anger finds it comforting to know that there are “good citizens out there” who are armed and may be able to aid in situations where police can’t respond as fast or effectively as they would like on their own.
Since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that prohibited certain kinds of large capacity semi-automatic rifles expired in 2004, gun laws have gotten progressively looser, according to Columbus Police Department in-house attorney Jeff Furbey. And while his observation is that police are generally unhappy about the resulting increased chance of coming into contact with a gun in the line of duty, there is little evidence that the expansion of gun owners’ rights has affected the overall level of violence throughout the state, he said.
Of greater concern to some in law enforcement is getting more effective treatment for people who are mentally ill and preventing them from acquiring weapons.
“It’s not the gun that worries me as much as the person who has it,” Sheriff Fischer said.
“Legislators will have to do something about the mental health issues and regulate what kind of people shouldn’t have guns — someone who is emotionally disturbed obviously shouldn’t have a gun.”
The Springfield police have adopted an information sharing system with the Mental Health and Recovery Board for Clark, Greene and Madison counties that helps keep law enforcement informed about incidents that occur in the area. According to Springfield Chief Moody, 50 of his officers are also specifically trained in how to de-escalate mental health calls, a program he believes has saved lives. If police know the history of a particular resident, they can be better prepared to handle a situation involving someone with a mental illness.
But police admit that it would be difficult to devise a fail-safe system to identify the mentally ill, which in reality can be anyone on a bad day, several said.
“We are all potential suspects,” Grote said, quoting Miami-Township Fire Chief Colin Altman at a recent school safety meeting. “When people get put in certain situations, you don’t know what they’re capable of or how they will react — anyone can have a momentary mental lapse, it’s a matter of degrees for everyone.”
The argument brings the issues back to guns, where many agree that increased safety requirements might be quite helpful.
Currently, the law mandates little to no safety training for gun owners, allowing citizens to purchase a gun without demonstrating any competency in how to use it. To get a concealed carry license, gun owners are required to take 12 hours of instruction on “what they can and can’t do” with their guns, Sheriff Fischer said. Much about operating a gun safety is “common sense and shouldn’t have to be legislated,” said Fischer, including storing guns in a safe area and keeping them away from children. Again he noted, “the vast majority of gun owners do use their guns in a safe manner.”
But police departments require much more training on a more regular basis in order to ensure their officers, who carry their guns for a living, are using their guns safely. Fairborn police officers engage in 15–20 hours of training four times a year every year, including reviewing use of force policies, weapon use, home safety and active target shooting and scenario drills.
Currently the law allows the gun owners to decide how much training he or she wants to get, but Fairborn Sergeant Hicks believes that the law should require some amount of education for every person who purchases a gun (though he acknowledges the challenges of enforcing such a rule and doesn’t want it to be a financial burden for the gun owner.) He recommends at least annual training on weapon use, safety in the home, and educating family members about the weapon. In his opinion, for instance, guns should be stored with the safety engaged and an additional gun lock so that it takes two different movements to engage the firearm.
“It’s incumbent on everyone that owns a firearm to do that much…accidents are rare, but they do happen — and they’re always tragic,” he said.
Grote agrees that even the short concealed-carry classes don’t come close to conveying all that a gun owner would need to know about how to use a gun safely.
“There’s so much more to it, from understanding how a weapon fires, to how to get a sight picture, when you can shoot, under what circumstances — the training goes on and on,” he said.
Grote is also concerned that people don’t understand the nuances of the “stand-your-ground” law that, similar to the Castle law, allows the use of force for self defense in a lawfully occupied public space. But the justification for shooting someone still has to involve a life-or-death threat.
“Even if someone’s in your house, you can’t shoot them in the back…you have to prove, were they in fact a threat to you?,” Grote said. “It’s just not that simple — you can’t shoot someone for stealing your T.V.”
And if it seems like safely storing guns in a home with children is common sense, one need not look far to be reminded that accidents happen. In 2009, while he was still police chief, Grote’s cousin lost his 3-year old grandson who found a handgun under his parents’ bed and accidentally shot himself at home in Vandalia.
Though police in the area have seen little trouble with guns used by law abiding citizens, since they are the first responders, they are trained to look at any gun as a potential threat, Hicks said.
“It would probably be scary to know what little training the average gun owner has,” he said.
While area police didn’t all agree on the solutions to reduce gun violence, many acknowledged that the current laws need more bite in order to be effective. And several said something should be done to keep guns out of the hands of people who can’t be trusted to handle them safely and use them properly.
“I applaud the Constitution, but I’m concerned with the people who may fall through the cracks…and the more cracks we can fix and seal up, the better,” Springfield Chief Moody said. “Information sharing is critical. I’m not talking about establishing databases and getting into everybody’s business, but let’s communicate so we can do something to stop the next Newtown or Virginia Tech.”