A small step toward fewer tragedies

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 26 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:08 am in
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By The Gazette Editorial Board

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A double murder-suicide case in Cedar Rapids late last month raised one of the questions often heard these days regarding gun violence in our nation: Could police officers have done more in advance to prevent the tragedy?

The incident, according to police reports, involved a man who shot his wife and her mother in his mother-in-law’s residence, then killed himself. Less than 48 hours earlier, the shooter had called local police to his home, telling them he was having an emotional crisis over the troubled relationship with his wife and needed to be taken to a hospital. He told officers he had guns in his house, police reported. An officer took the man to a hospital, leaving the guns.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman said officers acted appropriately, as they did not see evidence that the man intended to harm himself or anyone else and did not ask him to give up his weapons.

Less than two weeks later, Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner announced a formal directive that requires his deputies to ask people seeking help in a mental health or substance-abuse crisis to voluntarily hand over weapons for temporary safekeeping with a family member or the Sheriff’s Office. While deputies already can and sometimes do ask that question, now it’s a formal procedure.

Gardner told The Gazette the purpose is to “take some of the judgment out of this, so you can lessen the chances of something bad happening once we are gone.”

If someone in crisis agrees to turn over weapons, he or she can ask for the guns back even after any standard three-day committal order following a mental health evaluation. Unless there’s a follow-up court order, the weapons must be returned to the owner.

The sheriff’s directive looks like a modest change that doesn’t violate gun rights. Instead, it could be one, albeit a small, step toward averting a future tragedy. We see no overriding reason not to do it.

An even bigger step would be a more comprehensive, robust mental health care system that can deliver more help sooner to people in crisis. And that, sadly, is still very much a work in progress in Iowa.

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