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VACP President: “Honor fallen police heroes by preventing gun violence”

May 18, 2012 | VACP

This week marks National Police Week, when we commemorate law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Across America, law enforcement and families of fallen officers, along with civic leaders, lawmakers and members of the public, honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, including the 163 officers lost in 2011. In Virginia we mourn five of those officers — Adam Bowen, Deriek Crouse, Cameron Justus, Timothy Schock, and William Stiltner — as well as Michael Walizer, who was lost this year.

This week marks National Police Week, when we commemorate law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Across America, law enforcement and families of fallen officers, along with civic leaders, lawmakers and members of the public, honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, including the 163 officers lost in 2011. In Virginia we mourn five of those officers — Adam Bowen, Deriek Crouse, Cameron Justus, Timothy Schock, and William Stiltner — as well as Michael Walizer, who was lost this year.

In Richmond, the Virginia Public Safety Foundation on Monday unveiled the design for the Commonwealth Public Safety Memorial and launched the Campaign to Build Virginia's Monument to Heroes at Virginia's Capitol Square. Today, the State Police will hold a memorial service for Trooper Bowen at the Police Academy in Chesterfield County. Other events are taking place around the state and nation.

According to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, in 2011 police line-of-duty deaths increased over 2010. And in 2011, for the first time in 14 years, firearms were the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths, outnumbering traffic fatalities. Last year in Virginia, three of the five officers killed in the line-of-duty were killed with firearms.

The commonwealth has seen what happens when dangerous people get access to guns. We recently observed the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech, where a disturbed gunman killed 32 people and wounded 17. Another gunman took the life of Officer Crouse there last year in a separate incident.

Our job in law enforcement is to protect the public, and we work day in and day out to prevent crime and violence. We are asking state and federal officials to support our efforts, and to work with us to promote policies that better protect the public and the police from preventable gun violence.

First, police chiefs across Virginia support establishing a federal law requiring background checks for all firearm sales so that those who should be denied guns are denied guns. Required background checks on all gun buyers would enforce the nation's 1968 Gun Control Act, which prohibits firearm possession by convicted felons, fugitives, illegal aliens, drug abusers, the mentally ill and other proscribed purchasers. This measure would have no impact on the rights of law-abiding citizens to purchase or own guns.

Currently, the federal Brady Law applies to gun sales through licensed dealers, but not to other sellers, who make up an estimated 40 percent of gun sales. Brady Law background checks have saved lives. They stopped almost 2 million prohibited purchasers nationally in the first 16 years of the law. In Virginia, 8,457 prohibited purchases were stopped between January 2001 and August 2008 alone.

Support for background checks on all purchasers is overwhelming. National polling shows that 86 percent of the public, including 81 percent of gun owners, want required background checks for all gun purchasers. In Virginia, 89 percent of registered voters support requiring background checks on all purchasers.

Action by Virginia and other states is important. But states cannot address the problem alone, as criminals resort to interstate firearms trafficking. For example, according to data provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2009, of the guns recovered at crime scenes and successfully traced to their source state, 30 percent had crossed state lines. A federal law requiring background checks on all gun purchasers is crucial in order to dry up the supply.

Background checks will catch disqualified purchasers if their records are in the system, but too many records have not been reported. Since the Virginia Tech shootings, Virginia has led the charge on keeping guns from the mentally unstable by improving the reporting of people with mental health disqualifiers to the National Instant Check System (NICS). A 2008 federal law prodded states to improve their reporting of these records, but compliance has been lacking. In an effort to address this, Gov. Bob McDonnell recently wrote other governors urging them to improve submission of their states' records to the NICS system.

Police chiefs in Virginia and across the nation strongly oppose proposed federal legislation that would pre-empt state laws on carrying concealed weapons. If this bill passes, Virginia would have to honor concealed carry permits from states with lesser standards — even those without any standards at all. This legislation is pending in the U.S. Senate, and Virginia's chiefs of police are urging U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb to work to defeat the bill.

We are hopeful that our lawmakers will support law enforcement on these public safety measures. Preventing future crime and violence would be a meaningful tribute to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Richard C. Clark Jr. is chief of police in the Galax Police Department and president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Published May 18, 2012 in the Op/Ed section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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