WASHINGTON - Law enforcement leaders who met with President Barack Obama Monday urged him to focus on strengthening gun purchase background checks and mental health systems, but did not unify behind his more controversial gun control efforts.
The message from sheriffs and police chiefs gathered at the White House reflected the political reality in Congress that the assault weapons ban in particular is likely to have a hard time winning broad support. The president appeared to recognize the challenge of getting everything he wants from Congress as well, participants in the meeting said.
"We're very supportive of the assault weapons ban," as police chiefs, said Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Chief J. Thomas Manger in an interview with The Associated Press. "But I think everybody understands that may be a real tough battle to win. And one of the things that the president did say is that we can't look at it like we have to get all of these things or we haven't won."
Opinions over an assault weapons ban and limits on high capacity magazines — two measures the president supports — were divided in the room. While Manger said police chiefs from large cities support that kind of gun control, some of the elected sheriffs who were in the meeting may not.
"I think what was made clear was that gun control in itself is not the salvation to this issue," said Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald of Story County, Iowa, one of 13 law enforcement leaders who met with the president, vice-president and Cabinet members for more than an hour, seated around a conference table in the Roosevelt Room.
Among the participants were three chiefs who responded to the worst shootings of 2012, including Aurora, Colorado, where 12 were killed in a movie theatre in July; Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where six died in an assault on a Sikh temple, and Newtown, Connecticut, scene of the most recent mass tragedy that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead.
The White House recognizes that police are a credible and important voice in the debate over guns that has developed following last month's elementary school shooting in Connecticut. Obama opened the meeting before media cameras and declared no group more important to listen to in the debate.
"Hopefully if law enforcement officials who are dealing with this stuff every single day can come to some basic consensus in terms of steps that we need to take, Congress is going to be paying attention to them, and we'll be able to make progress," Obama said.
Obama urged Congress to pass an assault weapons ban, limit high capacity magazines and require universal background checks for would-be gun owners in a brief statement to reporters. But participants said after the media was escorted from the room, the focus was not on the assault weapons ban.
"He did not ask us if we do or do not support an assault weapons ban," said Hennepin County, Minnesota, Sheriff Richard Stanek, president of the Major County Sheriffs' Association. "He did not ask us if we do or do not support high capacity magazines."
"I told him very candidly that this isn't just about gun control alone," Stanek said. He said the bigger issue is that the Justice Department's system for background checks is incomplete since many states don't report mental health data or felony convictions. He mentioned how in his home state of Minnesota, a 14-year-old shot and killed his mother with a shotgun, but was later able legally to buy additional handguns and automatic weapons because the background check did not reveal his history. "There's example after example after example like that across the country," Stanek said.
Fitzgerald said the mental health system needs to be better funded because jails across the country are becoming "dumping grounds for the mentally ill."
"I was not the only sheriff that spoke up on that issue," Fitzgerald said. "To me, that is the No. 1 thing if we are going to impact that kind of violence that's happening in America."
All the law enforcement participants interviewed said they appreciated the president's attention to the issue and found the meeting constructive. Manger said the president did a lot more listening than talking and heard about the need to fund more police officers to protect school safety and a proposal to restrict the sale of ammunition on the Internet besides the broad calls for stronger mental health and background check systems.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said he's never been more encouraged about the prospect of gun control legislation of some sort, even if the assault weapons ban his group supports is an uphill battle.
"You're not going to get 100 per cent of people to agree on anything as it relates to gun control, and we're no different, but a majority of people in the room recognize that something needs to be done," he said. "This was not just a passing thing as far as the president and vice-president are concerned. This is something that they are determined to keep in front of the American people until they get something passed."
While the assault weapons ban was not a major focus of the White House meeting, participants say it was discussed at length at a later meeting with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who sponsored a ban in 1994 that lasted for a decade and last week introduced a renewal of the ban in Congress.
"I would say her message was not well received overall by the group," Stanek said. "Everyone has an opinion on it one way or another."
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