MONTGOMERY, Alabama - An Alabama sheriff invited to meet with President Barack Obama about gun violence told the president there are critical gaps in mental health needs and that average folks aren't buying the message that he doesn't want to take away people's guns.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson, who is president of the National Sheriffs' Association, was one of 13 sheriffs and police chiefs invited to the White House today for a discussion with Obama about gun violence. Other attendees included the police chiefs from Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., the sites of two of the nation's recent gun massacres.
"The purpose was to hear from us about some of the issues we're facing," Amerson said.
Amerson said he told the president that the mentally ill regularly fill county jails and that there were loopholes in reporting mental health records to law enforcement for gun background checks.
Amerson said health professionals are often hesitant to communicate with law enforcement for fear of violating privacy laws.
"There are people who are sliding through the cracks," Amerson said.
"Twenty-five percent to thirty percent of people who come into the jails every month are mentally ill. Any day at any jail, that's the working number," Amerson said.
The discussion with the president was frank, he said.
Amerson, a Democrat like the president, said he told the president that average folks aren't buying the idea that Obama's not trying to take away people's guns.
"The president said to us he wasn't there to take any firearms from an average person who needs them for self-protection or sporting purposes," Amerson said.
"If you ask the average guy on the street, he won't agree," Amerson said.
Amerson said the National Sheriffs' Association has expressed support for executive orders signed by Obama but the group has not taken a position on any gun control legislation.
"We want to make sure what we do is practical and effective," Amerson said.
Amerson noted one of the employees in his department legally owns a machine gun.
"There are many, many thousands of these weapons out there … and they are very rarely used in a crime," Amerson said.
Amerson said "basic handguns" are the weapon of choice in Calhoun County crimes. He said they do see some assault weapons which are of a particular concern for law enforcement because of their ability to pierce body armor.
Amerson said he also discussed the importance of using teachers and schools to identify and help refer troubled youngsters to counseling. He said about 2,000 students have received services through a project in Calhoun County to connect kids with services.
Obama said before the meeting that he was looking forward to a "robust conversation" on gun violence, gun laws and law enforcement resources.
"If law enforcement officials who are dealing with this stuff every single day can come to some basic consensus in terms of steps that we need to take, Congress is going to be paying attention to them and we'll be able to make progress," Obama told the group before their meeting in the Roosevelt Room, according to a White House transcript.
The president said he wanted the group's input on ways to not only prevent another Sandy Hook school shooting, but also the daily gun deaths that do not make national headlines.