On Dec. 14, 2012, the horror of the shooting that killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., sent shock waves through the country. There had been shootings in the past, but the sight of photos of small children being massacred by a madman sparked the latest national debate over gun control. Legislation has been proposed, sending a panic through many corners of the country, as the debate has raged whether gun control is a viable option.
The discussion has made its way to Wright County and Sheriff Joe Hagerty has found himself in the middle of the debate because, as the furor over the shooting has caught national attention, the misconceptions of gun control have taken over.
“There is a significant segment of the population that fears that government is planning to take away their guns and re-define the Second Amendment right to bear arms,” Hagerty said.
“I’m unaware of any legislation that would seek to get rid of handguns or rifles. The only legislation that I’ve seen is looking to restrict the sale of assault weapons – those guns that have pistol grips and magazines that can hold 30 rounds or more of ammunition and can be fired extremely quickly and do the kind of damage you see in these mass shootings.”
At the time of any mass shooting, whether it was the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, the rampage at Virginia Tech, a theater shooting spree in suburban Denver or the Sandy Hook shooting, there is a public outrage that follows – both among those who want to get rid of all guns and those who claim Constitutional protection for their right to bear arms.
However, Hagerty said the Sandy Hook shooting has brought out even more emotion because the victims were largely 6 and 7 year old children and teachers who tried to protect them.
“The Sandy Hook shooting got emotions very raw,” Hagerty said. “There’s always a backlash after these types of incidents, but these were truly innocents that were taken from their families. Their lives were just beginning. A madman wiped out a group of children and that got everyone’s hackles up – even the President.. People want answers to things that don’t have answers.”
Hagerty added: “Sometimes legislation comes too quickly as a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy. I think that’s what we’re seeing now as people are lining up on both sides of the issue.”
Fears of legislation that might restrict gun ownership has had an immediate impact in Wright County.
In January, 2012, the sheriff’s department issued 145 permits to purchase firearms.
This January, that number jumped to 363. In January, 2012, the county issued 72 permits to carry guns.
This January, following the Sandy Hook tragedy and subsequent discussion of controlling guns, 262 permits to carry were issued.
“It’s been amazing,” Hagerty said. “It’s been like the Krispy Kreme going out of business marketing strategy. People think they have to get in while they still can. The reality is we will never be able to control the number of guns that are out there. It’s estimated that there are 360 million guns in the United States – more than one per person in the country.”
He added: “Guns don’t have a shelf life, so the genie is already out of the bottle in that regard. But, every time we have one of these tragedies, you see spikes in people wanting to purchase or carry guns because of it.”
Hagerty said the reality of the situation is that, as the old adage goes, guns don’t kill people, it’s the people with the guns that kill people.
He said there are 4,700 permits to carry handguns that have been issued in Wright County and, after conducting an audit of crime statistics from 2012, not a single gun-related crime was committed by those who had permits to carry.
Minnesota doesn’t have a policy that requires people to register rifles, shotguns or handguns and Hagerty said that the thrust of the current legislation being discussed is based only at assault rifles.
“I don’t think any politician has come out and said they want to get rid of all guns,” Hagerty said.
“The Minnesota Sheriff’s Association has taken the stance that we aren’t looking to limit guns, but we want to keep them away from those who have mental instability that do the type of crimes you see at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Columbine. That’s our focus. We take complaints from neighbors and friends seriously. We monitor Facebook and Twitter for the signs of mental illness that could lead to someone we have concerns about doing something crazy.”
According to Haggerty the reality of the gun control and gun violence issues is that law enforcement can’t just kick the door down of someone it has concerns about because the U.S. Constitution has protections against that – not just the Second Amendment.
While Hagerty said it is difficult to identify the random act of insanity that leads to shootings, he said the county has been working closely with schools to conduct lockdown drills to protect students in the case such an event happens closer to home.
“We would be fools to say that something like that can’t happen here, but we’re trying to stay ahead of the game and be as prepared as we can be if something was to happen,” Hagerty said.
“In my opinion, we’re as organized as any county in the state,” he added.
“We have a Safe Schools program that brings people together to discuss issues that take place in our schools. We have regularly scheduled lockdown drills. You hope they won’t be needed, but you can’t be too safe when the lives of children are potentially at stake.”
The sad reality of the situation is that the Sandy Hook shooting, while horrific, won’t be the last such shooting.
There will continue to be shooting rampages long after the memory of Sandy Hook has joined the realm of Virginia Tech and Columbine in the back of the memory of the general public.
Hagerty is convinced that there will undoubtedly be another one coming at some point, whether legislation to restrict assault rifle sales is enacted or not.
All he can do is try to make Wright County schools as safe as possible and encourage people to keep their eyes open.
“All you can really do is take measures that are reasonable,” Hagerty said. “Your heart goes out to those families. If I had a child that had been killed, I would be angry and would want something done. But, the reality is that you can be at a theater in Colorado watching the latest Batman movie and some lunatic is going to come in and open fire.”
He added: “It’s impossible to explain the unexplainable. You pray that it will never happen in your area, but as long as there are people with mental illness, these things will happen – whether there are restrictions on guns or not. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the world we live in.”
Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.