County sheriffs target mental illness, not gun laws

County sheriffs in the Twin Cities area would rather talk about the need for earlier identification and better treatment and housing of people with mental illness, than discuss more restrictions on guns.

It is the county sheriff who grants the permit for an applicant to carry a gun in public, concealed or visible. (Permitting gun purchases is done at the local level.)

Sheriffs make their decision on each applicant for a permit to carry after doing criminal and mental health background checks.

Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows, who personally signs every permit, speaks for every sheriff who says he does not want to give a person permission to carry a gun who doesn’t have the mental capacity to use it.

Sheriffs across the state are busy permitting record numbers of applicants to carry guns.  The rejection rate is low.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek recently told Vice President Joe Biden that the criminal and mental health record data he relies on is less than desirable.

Stanek was invited to Washington by Biden to give his views about controlling gun violence, since he is president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association.

He said only 12 states contribute backgrounds on the mentally ill to the federal database. He also said that only 25 percent of felony cases are in the federal database that is used by sheriffs for background checks.

He told Biden sheriffs also are concerned about untreated mental illness. He estimates that of 38,000 prisoners his staff books a year, up to 30 percent have some kind of mental illness.

Because of a bed shortage for the mentally ill, last year 31 stayed in the Hennepin County Jail 10 days or longer. The jails, he said, have become the front line of mental health commitments. “We can hold them, but we can’t treat them,” Stanek said

Sheriffs in the Twin Cities area also are seeing an increase in mental health calls to their departments.

Typically, when called by a family concerned about a member who threatens to do harm to himself or others, a deputy goes to the house. If necessary, the deputy takes the person to see a doctor at a hospital emergency room. If a doctor believes the troubled person should be detained, a 72-hour hold can be required.

After 72 hours, usually the person is released.

Then where do they go?  Stanek says there is a shortage of state mental health facilities. He told U.S. Sen. Al Franken recently that Minnesota ranks either first or second in the least number of per capita beds for the mentally ill.

Wright County Sheriff Joe Haggerty has the same concern. “Sometimes it’s a battle to find a place to treat them,” he says. Haggerty used to send those who needed treatment to Willmar, but that facility has been closed.

Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart says there is the 72-hour confinement, but there are few places to admit them after that.

Stuart would like to see an earlier identification of kids who are troubled.

Stanek says he’s talked to mental health professionals and judges who said there is a shortage of mental health professionals in the state.

It’s well known that there is also a shortage of counselors in the schools.

Meanwhile, requests for permits to carry and buy guns are surging.

In Hennepin County, the requests to carry are up four fold. Stanek estimates that of 1.2 million county residents, 21,000 are authorized to carry a weapon.

Bellows of Dakota County figures 8,000 to 9,000 residents have permits to carry. In Wright County, the number is 4,000. Sheriff Brent Lindgren of Mille Lacs County says 2012 was a record year for issuing permits to carry.

Stuart says requests for issuing gun permits in Anoka County are setting new records.

Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott reports that since January 2008, 3,146 permits to carry and purchase have been recorded, with a 60 percent increase over a year ago.

Last year in Carver County, 620 permits to carry were approved, 112 were renewed and four were denied.

Stanek said during the discussion with Vice President Biden, it was noted nine of the shooters in mass murders suffered from mental illness.

He says changes in preventing gun violence are not easy. There are other issues at stake than just more gun restrictions. Preventing severe mental illness is one of those issues. — Don Heinzman, ECM Publishers

(Editor’s note: Next column: What sheriffs think about safety of students in their schools.)