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Feb 13, 2013 8:10 PM by Angela Douglas - Q2 News

BPD Chief, YC Sheriff weigh in on gun control

BILLINGS - During his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama focused part of his speech on gun laws.

"They deserve a vote," the President said. "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote."

If Congress passes the proposed firearm restrictions of banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines, by definition, law enforcement will be the ones cracking down on those laws.

"If something happens, we're going to be called in to regulate," explained Billings Police Chief Rich. St. John. "We don't regulate by trade, we enforce laws."

But according to the Chief of Police, military-style rifles are not the issue in Billings.

"The criminals that we deal with and the incidences that we have had over the years have historically involved a high percentage of handguns, not assault guns," said. Chief St. John.

In fact, it's been decades since Billings police have responded to a crime where an assault rifle was used.

"Going back to the mid-80s, that I can remember, there's been one incident where an assault rifle was used in a homicide," Chief St. John recalled.

From 2008 to 2012, 126 homicides and robberies were reported in Billings. More than 40-percent of those crimes committed involved a handgun. In the county, that trend continued.

"In the circumstances that we've seen lately, pistols have been the weapon of choice," said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder. "The ban that we're looking at, I don't think that will do much for us here."

But the gun control debate in Washington has prompted some Yellowstone County residents to apply for a concealed weapon permit. On average, the sheriff's office is receiving 30 applications a week.

In 2011, nearly 643 permits were issued in Yellowstone County. In 2012, that number jumped to 1,076.

"About 20-percent of them are probably renewals, 80-percent would be new applications," said Sheriff Linder.

When looking at the issue, local law enforcement leaders are more concerned about the person behind firearm, than the gun itself.

"Obviously the capability of the firearm adds to the carnage, but ultimately it's the person," stated the BPD Chief.

That's another side to the debate at the nation's capitol. President Obama is proposing universal background checks prior to all gun sales. A motion Chief St. John supports.

"If there's a person that has a propensity for violence, has mental illness or whatnot. If we can intervene at that early stage, then I think that that's going to benefit us down the road," Chief St. John said.

The President has already put 23 executive orders into effect. They focus on several issues including mental health and firearm safety.

"A lot of them deal with mental health, training, education, school resource officers," Sheriff Linder listed off. "I think we're on the right track when it comes to that."

Chief St. John agreed.

"Whether it's a strategy, a program, a policy. That's the leverage that we need," said Chief St. John. "We're not looking at law abiding citizens, we're not looking for infringement on the second amendment.

When talking crime prevention, local law enforcement is skeptical that restrictions on firearms will have a positive impact. But, when it comes to keeping the citizens of Billings and Yellowstone County safe, the Chief and Sheriff are hopeful for a strategy that will prevent firearms from landing in the wrong hands.

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