Sheriff takes his gun talk into the ‘lion’s den’

By From page A1 | March 15, 2013


SHERIFF D'AGOSTINI holds a pocket size edition of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights in his hand as he speaks to a group March 7 at the Office of Education in Placerville about his duty to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Democrat photo by Pat Dollins

John D’Agostini, sheriff of El Dorado County, discussed and debated a number of gun-related issues at last week’s meeting of the Democratic Women of El Dorado County. More than 80 attended, nearly filling a large conference room at the county Office of Education. Some were there to challenge the sheriff’s highly public and publicized remarks on gun control and the Second Amendment, while others were eager to learn more about the county’s chief law enforcement officer’s views and positions on crime and related issues.

While introducing D’Agostini, the group’s president, Jamie Beutler, jokingly welcomed him to the “lion’s den.” The reference suggested that he was walking into a hostile political environment filled with “liberal anti-gun Democrats.”

The sheriff took the joke good naturedly and described a community outreach program he has instituted to help “break down walls that have built up between law enforcement and the community.” He noted that he wants to change what he calls a common European dynamic where police officers are referred to as “men without legs” — that is, cops who never get out of their cars. He also described monthly meetings on the slate and community surveys to ascertain residents’ needs and expectations regarding law enforcement.

Written questions had been solicited in advance and more were collected from the audience. The first question, “Did you or someone else write the letter to Vice President Biden” that appeared on the front page of the Mountain Democrat? The letter sounded a defiant tone against what the sheriff perceived as potentially “unconstitutional laws or executive orders” that might restrict the Second Amendment.

“I wrote that letter one evening,” he said. “It needed to be said, and I have strong feelings about it. I take my oath of office very, very seriously. I have a copy of the Constitution in my pocket and all Sheriff’s Department employees will have one soon as well.”

D’Agostini acknowledged that he is not a “constitutional scholar,” but his study and research assure him that the foundation of the Second Amendment is about “being free from a tyrannical government. It is the law of the land … but it goes far beyond the Second Amendment.”

Larry Beutler, PhD in Psychology and former director of the National Center for the Psychology of Terrorism, represented a somewhat more clinical perspective on the issue of gun violence. Like any good professor, Beutler announced that he did not intend “to be as brief as the sheriff” in his initial remarks.

“America is a violent country,” he opened. “The FBI says we have 100,000 gun-related deaths every year. That represents 80 percent of the gun violence of the 23 next most-populous countries.”

Beutler continued with the rhetorical question, “Does reducing the access to guns reduce firearm violence? We have an empirical marker showing that people who own guns are more likely to die by gun,” he said in praise of good science and good research. “The scientific method allows us to take the emotion out of the issue.”

Wrapping up his introductory “lecture,” Beutler cited studies concluding that “guns are much more likely to be used to intimidate and threaten than to protect home and self (there are only about 200 cases of non-police officers saving their own lives with a gun)…. If you make it even a little bit harder (to get guns), it will have a significant reduction in bad behavior. That’s according to the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association and various other scientific groups,” he said.

The next audience question to the sheriff related to his letter to Biden wherein he vowed not to uphold “an unconstitutional law” regarding gun control or other perceived violation of the Second Amendment.

“How will you decide if a law is or is not constitutional?” the moderator read.

“I sincerely hope and believe it will never happen (curtailment of the Second Amendment) … (or other similar action like) some hypothetical situation such as quartering of troops (in private homes),” he explained.

[The Third Amendment: QUARTERING OF SOLDIERS. The constitution of the United States, Amend. art. 3, provides that “no soldier shall in time of peace be quartered, in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” By quartering is understood boarding and lodging or either.]

“And for every study the doctor cited there are opposing studies. I’d like to see a law that felons with guns get serious jail time. Background checks should be more stringent (to keep guns out of the hands of knuckleheads),” D’Agostini said.

D’Agostini used the term “knuckleheads” throughout his remarks to distinguish law abiding citizens and gun owners from criminals, “gang-bangers” and others who should not have firearms.

Responding to “How are you enforcing California laws that are on the books?” the sheriff proudly stated, “My deputies enforce every law in all categories. We’ve changed the way we patrol and we have a special enforcement division. We don’t turn our backs on any laws. They are our tools to protect you.”

He noted that his office cofiscates weapons from “felons and misdemeanants” as much as possible but scolded the state Department of Justice for “not wisely using their resources” and chasing low-level miscreants rather than going after those who pose serious threats to the community — knuckleheads and idiots.

Dr. Beutler interjected that “Most murders are committed not by criminals but as crimes of passion.”

Regarding issuance of Conceal Carry Weapon permits, D’Agostini praised the process and documentation required for CCW applicants and acknowledged the number has increased by at least double or more in the past two years. An audience member said it “seems counterintuitive (to public safety) to have three times more concealed weapons since you’ve been sheriff.”

“I trust the CCW person more, because the bad guys don’t apply for them,” D’Agostini countered.

Regarding law enforcement’s handling of situations involving individuals who may be mentally ill and are posing a threat or perceived threat, D’Agostini credited his predecessor, Jeff Neves, for implementing a comprehensive training program for officers. Establishment of a “crisis intervention team” has been an effective way to deal with the problem, he said. He further noted that incidents involving “adjudicated mentally ill persons have been very uncommon here.”

Beutler then pointed out that the “incidence of homicide by such individuals is a little bit higher than among the general population, but it’s very difficult to identify who will be violent.” Suicide is more common among the mentally ill than is homicide, he added.

Asked about the existence of organized, violent, “patriot” vigilante groups in the county, D’Agostini said there have been “none on my radar.”

The sheriff’s advice as to how “non-gun owners” can protect themselves drew a laugh when he suggested, “Don’t put up a sign saying you’re a non-gun owner.” Realistically, however, he said, “keep your perimeter clear, don’t walk in the dark, maybe get a dog” (as was shouted out by an audience member).

In their closing remarks, Dr. Beutler said, “I’d love it if we could all operate from the same set of facts, those on which all global science agrees.”

Sheriff D’Agostini got a big round of applause when he concluded, “This is not a lion’s den. I work for you.”

Jamie Beutler described her group’s general reaction to the sheriff. “Most people really like him as a person and think he’s doing a good job with his community outreach, but some are puzzled by the strength of his opposition to the president’s positions.

“Has he really read what the president has written? Some of us are really frustrated that he wrote that letter to the vice president when it appears that he hasn’t read those positions. And as much as we like our sheriff, it’s not his job to determine the constitutionality of laws. That’s the Supreme Court’s job. But overall, we’re very pleased with how he’s doing. And I’d like to feel that when we do disagree with him, we can be very polite and respectful. I was hoping to find some common ground, and I think we did.”

Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or [email protected]. Follow @CDaleyMtDemo. 

Chris Daley

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