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Pasco Tribune

Pasco sheriff, anti-violence advocate debate gun issues

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:35 PM

The local debate on gun control and mental health services took center stage after President Barack Obama outlined proposals in his State of the Union speech.

Sheriff Chris Nocco recently wrote about his view that the issue of untreated mental illness should be the focal point of changes in the wake of the mass shooting in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

"We agree the mental health of these shooters deserve careful study and review," Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said in response to Nocco's effort to focus attention on the link between violent crime and untreated mental illness.

Hayhoe, however, also wants to discuss more restrictions on assault weapons, including the AR-15 rifle used in the Sandy Hook shootings and other mass murders. He supports Obama's call for limits on the number of rounds in a magazine. In addition, he would close loopholes on background checks of private sales at gun shows.

"Make no mistake, this was a terrible tragedy that we should work hard to prevent from ever happening again," Nocco wrote. "It is unfortunate that this search for solutions has not turned to what I believe is the real issue at hand, assisting those who struggle with mental illness."

Pasco deputies "see it in the form of someone attempting or completing suicide or possibly a person who is off their medication and acting out their aggression and commits a crime," Nocco said. Child protection investigators routinely work with children who suffer mental illness issues, he said.

Nocco cited a U.S. Department of Justice study in 2009 that estimates 9 million people are booked into U.S. jails during the course of a year.

"This is due to a lack of facilities in the local communities where assistance can be provided," Nocco said. "Our jail has unfortunately turned into a quasi-treatment center for those dealing with mental illness and the largest detoxification center in Pasco."

Nocco and the sheriff's office are working with BayCare Behavioral Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and veterans groups about coordinating their efforts. "I believe a big step is to put the issue of mental illness in the forefront of our discussions," he said.

Hayhoe said the sheriff "is only half right that the focus of the gun debate should be on mental health, but ignores the fact these mass shootings were all conducted with AR-15 assault rifles using high capacity magazines."

Assault rifles and high-capacity magazines also deserve a place in the "forefront of our discussion," Hayhoe added.

Nocco's stand, Hayhoe said, "Reflects the fact this sheriff was a Republican political appointee adhering to the Republican mantra that it's all about the person and not the gun. This sheriff has put everyone on notice he will not be a sheriff for everyone, just the gun lobby."

Nocco replied: "Having Mr. Hayhoe accept the fact that mental illness has played a key role in these mass shootings is at least a starting point in finding common ground in this debate."

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