Opinion: Securing schools huge, necessary undertaking

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Over the past few weeks, the topic of discussion seems to be centered around the most recent school violence, the shooting in Florida that recently captured everyone’s attention as well as previous events, such as the 22 people stabbed in 2014 at a Pennsylvania school.

Of course, no conversation ends without debate over gun control that has our nation somewhat divided. These seem to be the lead stories on nearly every news station and dominating discussion on social media as well.

As your county sheriff, I have engaged in and listened to several discussions, including the tragedies in Las Vegas, Nevada, Aztec, New Mexico and especially any threats made at our local schools these past weeks. This is good (to have) open lines of communication, and I’ve heard a variety of opinions and thoughts.

The one thing that it seems most everyone agrees on is how unfortunate it is that the rise in crimes and mass shooting and assaults across the U.S. has steered us in a direction where law enforcement must train for and expect the worst in every call. The sheriff’s office is and has been training for the worst, and, unfortunately, we no longer say “if it happens here” but rather “when it happens here.”

From what I learned about the Parkland, Florida tragedy I believe the first deputies on scene did have the opportunity to enter the building and stop the actions of the 19-year-old “legal gun owner” sooner than they did. I don’t know their training, policy or procedure, but I do know ours.

We are trained to engage immediately on arrival and have the expectation that the first unit to arrive will rush to the violence and do its best to stop or minimize the killing as quickly as possible even though the probability of injury to us is very high.

I’ve heard several conversations about arming teachers, too. While I cannot support this as “mandatory,” I believe we have reached an impasse and should have armed, uniformed security. Teachers? Maybe.

My biggest hang-up remains that any armed person dressed in civilian clothing might be mistaken for the assailant that law enforcement is hastily looking for when they arrive. I’d hate for a deadly mistake to be made due to misidentification of the “bad guy.”

And, of course, all this needs to be in conjunction with enhanced security measures, X-ray machines and metal detectors at every entrance as well as posted warnings to the effect that “This school is protected by enhanced security measures and armed staff.” It is certainly a huge deterrent and undertaking.

Compare this to what steps have been taken to assure our safety on commercial flights. Armed sky marshals and enhanced screening and security measures, including that of the cockpit, has resulted in not one successful hijacking of a U.S.-originated flight since this began after the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy.

The debate over our Second Amendment, which protects the right to own and carry firearms, is also one of great controversy. Let me make it clear that I support your Second Amendment right that any law-abiding citizen can possess and carry a firearm if they choose.

Let us not forget either that only a few months ago, a law-abiding citizen, armed with an AR-15 rifle, stopped the killing caused by Patrick Kelly at a rural Texas church. While many are calling for changes in the minimum age to own or possess a gun, more stringent and renewable background checks and for an outright ban on certain high-capacity rifles and handguns, I have been calling for harsher sentencing of criminals.

Our system is clearly broken when it comes to keeping guns out of the wrong hands and keeping accused repeat criminals in jail. Universally, I wish more was being done to keep guns from repeat criminals and those with mental health issues.

I truly get the argument that “guns don’t kill – people do” just like cars don’t kill – people do, and I agree with that simple logic. But when it comes right down to it, we have more laws protecting the bad guys than we do our hard-working, law-abiding citizens.

Another frustration has long been over the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) that specifically protects a patient’s mental health information and treatment. Don’t you think that information should be readily available to public safety workers and judges? Don’t you think that the courts identifying a person with violent tendencies and mental health illness is the first step in preventing further violence? I sure do.

Jerry Hogrefe is the Taos County Sheriff.

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