TAKE 5: Sheriff speaks about Newtown shootings, gun ownership

Dec. 22, 2012 @ 05:00 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter about the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and his thoughts about gun ownership and gun laws. Carter, 46, is a Lee County native and 1984 graduate of Lee County High School. His law enforcement career includes serving in various capacities in the Sheriff's Office beginning in 1986 and serving as the first chief of the Lee County Schools police force. He was elected sheriff in November 2006. Carter, a Rotarian and member of the board of directors of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sanford, and his wife, Angie, have four children. They are members of the Church of God of Prophecy.

You're a former SRO (School Resource Officer), and now the county's top law enforcement officer. Plus, you're a father. What immediate reaction did you have to the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and in the week that's passed, what weights most heavily on your mind?

Shock, because who would have expected something like this to have occurred where someone would kill children like this individual did? The other reaction was that of heartache and sadness for the families of all those children, as well as the families of the other individuals who lost their lives. I also think about the first responders and what they had to deal with when they arrived on scene. I want to encourage everyone to pray for these families now and in the days to come.

What — if anything — could have been done to prevent this tragic event?

When a person for whatever reason takes it upon themselves to commit basically a sneak attack like the one in Connecticut, it is an extremely difficult thing to prevent. However, anytime a tragedy occurs, we can always learn something from it. We need to take a hard look at this type of incident and the individuals who commit this type of crime and think of ways to better prepare our school to react if this occurs. For example: I think that our school system here in Lee County takes its emergency plans very seriously, but in an event like the one in Connecticut, where an armed intruder enters a campus when law enforcement is not present, what should schools do to prepare other than their current lockdown procedures?

One thing I think our lawmakers in Raleigh should consider would be changing the concealed carry law to allow designated school employees that have concealed carry permits (and would be willing to take additional firearms training) to be armed at certain schools. Law enforcement cannot be everywhere all the time, and this would at least give our students and staff a better chance to survive if something similar were to occur. If you study these incidents, you will find that mass shooters usually go where they will not meet resistance, and when they do meet resistance, they either take their own life, surrender or are shot by responding law enforcement. If it is approached the right way, I feel having certain armed school personnel would be an extra layer of protection for our students and staff on top of what we already have.

This shooting has reignited the gun control debate in the United States. What do you see as the main strengths and weaknesses in our current gun laws? What changes need to be made, in your opinion?

I feel strongly that we as a state and nation need to take a good look at mental health reform, especially as it relates to law enforcement and gun ownership.

I also support mandatory prison sentences for individuals who commit crimes with firearms.

When it comes to shootings at schools ... school systems are constantly looking for ways to keep campuses more safe. Some gun advocates suggest arming teachers and administrators, while opponents argue that stricter enforcement of gun laws and tighter regulations would have prevented the shooter from doing what he did. You've worked on our campuses ... what do you think? Is violence so prevalent that we'll always be at risk of these kinds of tragedies?

I don't feel that stricter gun laws would have prevented what occurred in Connecticut. If a person is that determined to commit such an act, unfortunately there is always a way. We have got to think of ways to better prepare ourselves and our schools to deal with this if it occurs. I do feel that gun owners who allow mentally unstable individuals access to their firearms should be held accountable.

I know that budgets are tight, but I think it is time that we look at adding additional school resource officers to better cover our elementary schools, as well as our private schools here in Lee County.

The prospect of tightened gun ownership laws has for the past year or so created higher gun and ammunition sales. What advice would you give to the uneducated about how to go about exploring gun ownership?

I don't have a problem with law abiding citizens owning firearms. I do strongly encourage them to take a firearms class and educate themselves on how to properly use a firearm. Most gun stores have information on firearms classes, and citizens can also call my office and we can assist with getting them that information.