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Delegate: Examine mental illness, not gun control

By Alex Bridges

Virginia needs to address mental health issues and school safety, not impose more gun control, says one of the region's state legislators.

Del. Michael J. Webert, R-Marshall, on Tuesday entered the growing national debate over access to firearms sparked by last week's school shooting in Connecticut. Webert represents the 18th district in the House of Delegates that covers Rappahannock County and parts of Warren, Fauquier and Culpeper counties.

Other legislators representing localities in the Northern Shenandoah Valley did not respond to requests via email or telephone seeking comment regarding their position on gun control, access to certain kinds of firearms, and how they as elected leaders may seek to address the issues arising from the Connecticut shooting.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Webert said the mass shootings in Newtown did not change his views on the broad topic of gun control.

"I'm a pro-second amendment person and I believe in the right to bear arms, not just for hunting but also in the fact that we have the right to defend ourselves ... and I am not going to infringe upon that right," Webert said.

But the incident shed more light on an issue brought up previously in the legislature -- that the state needs to improve how it deals with people suffering from mental illness, Webert said.

Published reports on the shootings have said the suspect, Adam Lanza, may have suffered from a mental illness. Such information spurred questions about the nation's efforts to treat mental illness and access to firearms by such individuals.

As Webert noted, those people in Virginia who seek to buy firearms must produce first answer questions before they can proceed, including one that asks about any diagnosed mental illness. If the person answers yes to the question, the firearms dealer is supposed to take action to keep the prospective buyer nearby while the owner contacts authorities.

Webert, as an avid hunter, owns several firearms including rifles such as an AR-15.

Webert said had not yet bought a gun safe. But the Connecticut incident spurred Webert to buy one for his firearms because he has a 9-month-old child.

"I will say that is one thing that (the Conn. shooting) did is it sped up my realization of my responsibility for the welfare of my child," Webert said.

Asked about his views on the access of specific kinds of firearms, Webert noted that a "grey area" exists between assault rifles and hunting rifles. Webert explained that his 30-06 caliber rifle fires in the same way as a semi-automatic weapon which many call an assault rifle. Webert said he uses the AR-15 to shoot groundhogs while riding on his farming tractor. But the legislator noted that the only difference between an AR-15 and a hunting rifle lies in how much ammunition the firearms hold, an amount that can change with the size of clip.

"I think the best course of action is to look at our mental health policies in the Commonwealth of Virginia to ensure that we can get help for people that need it," Webert said.

The delegate also echoed recent comments by Gov. Bob McDonnell regarding the need to ramp up safety of schools across the state. Webert noted that each of Fauquier County's schools has a law enforcement officer present.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com


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