AUGUSTA — If lawmakers want to curb gun violence, they must begin not with laws aimed at limiting the use of weapons, but with the state of mind of the people who use them.
That was the message many state legislators took away Thursday from a Maine Sheriff’s Association training session held at the Senator Inn & Spa. The session aimed to provide an overview of issues at the heart of the ongoing gun control debate.
Randall Liberty, Kennebec County’s sheriff and the association vice president, singled out mental health — not guns — as the key to reducing violence related to shootings.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who held and examined a variety of rifles and guns with other legislators, said after the training that the Legislature must get beyond discussion about the danger of particular firearms to improve safety.
“The harder work is to take a hard look at our mental health system and see if we’re really getting at the root,” Katz said.
Katz pointed to treatment and access as top issues, suggesting the state has gone too far in its bid to de-institutionalize mental health patients. At one time, as many as 1,700 patients were under direct supervision at the state mental health hospital in Augusta, he said.
The current state facility in Augusta, Riverview Psychiatric Center, has fewer than 100 beds, and patients are moved off the campus and allowed greater independence in group homes in the city.
“You wonder if maybe the pendulum has swung too far,” Katz said.
The two-hour session Thursday morning attracted dozens of legislators and law enforcement officials from around the state. Sheriff’s firearms instructors spent much of the training displaying different types of shotguns, revolvers, pistols and rifles, and the bullets used in each of them.
The trainers explained the weapons and described the characteristics and differences of each — specifically between different types of shotguns and rifles, including assault rifles and hunting rifles, as well as the difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons. The instructors also explained commonly used handguns and gave an overview of Maine’s open-carry and concealed-weapons laws.
The sheriff’s association said Thursday’s forum was informational only and it is not taking a stance on gun control proposals.
Capt. Christopher Wainwright, of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, said the prices of guns and rifles have soared in recent months as President Barack Obama and federal lawmakers have proposed new gun regulations in the wake of last month’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. On Wednesday, Obama unveiled a laundry list of proposals — the most sweeping of which are subject to congressional approval — such as background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on military-style weapons and renewing a 10-round limit on the size of ammunition magazines.
During the training, Wainwright held up .308-caliber semiautomatic hunting rifle with a wood stock next to .308-caliber semi-automatic rifle with black synthetic stock, a pistol grip and a collapsible stock. The first was easily identifiable as a traditional hunting rifle, but the second appeared to resemble what many would call an “assault rifle.”
Other than a larger clip on the synthetic stock rifle, the weapons are the same, Wainright said. “These are the same animals,” he said.
Wainright said none of the high-tech weapons on display would be used by criminals.
“None of them ever use any of this stuff,” he said. “What we run into is junk.”
Wainright downplayed the importance of different guns in mass shootings, saying any firearm can be lethal.
“Any weapon up here can be an assault weapon,” said Chief Deputy Hart Daley of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office. “It depends on how it’s used.”
Wainright said state law requires police to return firearms to family members after they’ve been confiscated at the time of an arrest. The law potentially puts the weapon back in possession of someone who may be a danger.
“It’s the mental health side. This won’t kill anybody,” Wainright said, holding up a rifle. “It’s the person behind it.”
York County Sheriff Maurice Ouellette said Maine’s top gun-related problem is the number of burglaries statewide aimed at stealing guns. Those weapons are then traded for drugs in Massachusetts, Ouellette said.
“The market for swapping guns for drugs is phenomenal,” Ouellette said. “I think I have a handle on it, but I don’t.”
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, a Marine and combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the training session confirmed his belief that police and sheriff’s deputies who deal with dangerous situations involving guns aren’t concerned about the type of firearm involved as much as the gun holder’s state of mind.
“That’s where we need to focus our energy,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we have a huge gun control issue.”
Katz said he appreciated the chance to learn about firearms and said the visual comparison of different rifles was particularly helpful.
“You can’t judge a gun by the way it looks,” he said. “I wish every member of the Legislature could have been here.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642