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Pamerleau Says Gun Control Debate Should Focus On Mental Illness

Javier Salazar

From the senseless deaths of children in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary, to the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, high-profile tragedies involving guns never cease to shock people across the nation.

The debate has sparked dialogue on whether the problem is guns, or the people behind them.

Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau said she believes mental illness is an issue that needs to be thoroughly examined.

"I've been a gun owner much of my adult life--I have my CHL. I've been a hunter and I'm a firm believer in the second amendment. My top priority is public safety," she said.

Pamerleau said she made a vow to uphold the laws of the United States and Texas, and that she is not a lawmaker.

She said picking and choosing the laws is not her job.

"On January 1, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and the laws of the State of Texas," she said. "I take that oath very seriously. In fact, my role is to enforce the laws, not to legislate and make laws," Pamerleau said.

The high-profile cases where innocent people are shot by a perpetrator has many on the lawmaking side wanting stricter gun-buying laws. President Barack Obama continues to push such legislation, and to restrict military-style weapons.

"It's time to restore the ban on military style assault weapons, and a 10-round limit for magazines to make it harder for a gunman to fire 154 bullets into his victims in less than five minutes," Obama said at a rally in April near Sandy Hook Elementary. "Let’s put that to a vote."

Congress has yet to act, but the president isn't backing down.

In response, sheriffs and police chiefs across the nation and in Texas are joining a growing chorus of those opposing Obama's gun control legislation by signing petitions stating they won't enforce any laws that are in conflict with the constitutional right to bear arms.

Pamerleau said she hasn't signed anything.

"Why do I need to sign anything?" she asked. "I took an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States and the laws of the State of Texas. To me, an oath is better."

Rather than debate the legality of what to do about guns, she wants to focus on mental health.

"We need to get at the heart of the issue, and it's not just about the use of guns. It's about mental instability and those who we need to address their needs as well," Pamerleau said.

In the late 1970s, Pamerleau faced mental instability first hand at home with her husband.

He was emotionally and physically abusive to her.

According to an article in "San Antonio" magazine, when Pamerleau left him he called her and threatened to kill himself.

He did follow through on his threat, but she said that freed her because she feared for her life.

"The debate we ought to be having is why is there so much violence in our society?" she asked. "What about mental health issues, issues of mental instability, family issues?"

She said the Bexar County Jail provides more beds for people with mental illness than the state hospital.

However, she said she supports people who are trained to use guns, and use them properly. In some cases, as in the December shooting at the Mayan Theater on the South Side, peace officers in the area can help mitigate problems.

In that incident, a gunman opened fire inside a nearby restaurant, injuring two people, and then ran into the theater. An off-duty sheriff's deputy working security there subdued the suspect.

"In the case of our sergeant that was at the Mayan Theater, she's a detention officer but she also has her peace officer license and she was working an off-duty job. As a result of her being prepared, and being there to provide security, she averted what could have been a tremendous tragedy to this community," Pamerleau said.

She said the same can be said for police officers at schools. In Texas, Pamerleau said school officers on campuses have the ability to confront any potential danger.

"It just broadens our ability to provide public safety for this community," she said.

Pamerleau said she wants to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and people with mental illness, but outside of that, she doesn't believe in denying anyone their second amendment rights.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.