Wright County Sheriff Joe Hagerty talked about his stance on the gun control issue with the Wright County Tea Party Patriots last week, before a crowd of more than 70 concerned gun owners from St. Michael and the surrounding area.
"The second amendment is pretty clear: right to bear arms," Hagerty said. "And we take that seriously.
His stance is the same as that of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association and the Hennepin County Sheriff, which was announced at a press conference a few weeks ago: access to guns is the problem, not the type of firearms or number of magazines people are allowed to purchase, he said.
"I'm as concerned as anyone with what they (lawmakers) term as assault rifles," Hagerty said. "In Wright County, I can't think of a crime that I've had committed involving that gun, really hardly any gun in Wright County. We just don't have a lot of violent crime, knock on wood."
The solution to gun violence around the nation is making sure information that would prohibit someone from owning a gun is actually entered into state databases — both criminal and mental health databases involving commitments to mental health institutions.
When someone applies for a gun permit, Hagerty said, the office checks on two databases: the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which should typically contain mental health commitment information, and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension database for felonies or crimes involving guns. However, sometimes information is not found in those databases. The NICS data entry is also voluntary for each state, he said.
"We do know some of that information in there is just missing," he said. "If somebody's struggling with mental illness and they have a mental health issue and they get committed by the court, where ever it is... if that information is not in the system, and I can't get to it, I could certainly sign a permit for somebody that we don't think has any business having it."
Since Dec. 14, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, several residents concerned about their gun ownership rights have asked Hagerty whether he took an oath to protect all constitutional amendments.
"I took an oath to uphold the constitution of the United States and the state of Minnesota," he told the crowd.
Several attendees at the meeting asked Hagerty pointed questions about whether he would enforce federal regulations that intrude on the second amendment. He explained that sheriffs rarely enforce federal law — federal officers do that.
One person asked Hagerty what he would do if federal officers took gun control enforcement locally into their own hands, if new gun laws restricted types of firearms or magazine numbers.
"I don’t want to take a guess at what might happen — I just honestly cannot answer that," he said "I’d have to have a situation in front of me. Again, I took an oath to uphold the constitution, and I hope that’s enough for you tonight."
The tea party group invited Hagerty to the Feb. 5 meeting to answer questions about how state legislation and bills in the works could impact their ability to own or purchase guns.
Residents from St. Michael, Albertville, Buffalo, Monticello and other areas were in attendance. One Buffalo resident told Patch that she's okay with having universal background check system, but not limitations on assault rifles and magazines. Several others voiced the same opinon.
Gun Permit Holders
Citizens of Wright County are "relatively law-abiding," Hagerty said. In an annual review of gun permit holders, the number of those who are prohibited by law from owning a gun, but still had a permit, was zero.
"We audit (permits) every year to find out, do we have any crimes of violence that would prohibit somebody from carrying a firearm?" he explained. "We just got done with the 2012 audit, and I'm happy to report we had zero crimes of violence commited by any of our permit holders."
At the meeting, Hagerty also released numbers on the recent influx of people applying for gun permits to purchase firearms.
"At the gun stores, the shelves are clear," he said. "People are buying them because they're afraid they won't be able to anymore."Gun Permit Applications in Wright County Jan. 2012 Jan. 2013 Permits to Purchase a Firearm 145 363 Permits to Carry a Firearm 72 262
'Our Life Changed'
Hagerty said the day of the Sandy Hook shooting had an impact on many people around the nation, including local law enforcement.
"Since the 14th of December, our life changed at our office," he said. "Can (a shooting) occur in Wright County? I'd be a fool to say it could never occur in Wright County. But we have something going for us here in Wright County that other places may not."
The county has several partnerships between law enforcement, schools, public health, courts, probation officers, and anyone whose job involves keeping children safe, he said. A program called Safe Schools aims to help struggling students by making services accessible to improve the child's life both at home and in school.
"If a school is dealing with maybe a struggling student, chances are, our office is dealing with the child in the home or on the streets," he said. "Chances are, the courts are dealing with them, county attorney is dealing with them...So it's just a way to really go after or prevent things that may happen. And maybe they haven't happened in Wright County because some of those (programs)."
There are also 10 full-time armed officers in seven school districts in the county as School Resource Officers.
Another program, Safe Communities, is a collaboration of some of the same professionals for Safe Schools. The program focuses on keeping roads safe.
"I'm proud of our office, I'm proud of what we do," he said. "Our passion is definitely public safety. We try not to politicize what we do."