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Editorial: With lax gun laws, PD rifles necessary

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In a perfect world, semi-automatic weapons would not be available for the public to purchase. Weapons used by the military on the battlefield should not be deployed on our city streets or even our hunting grounds.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. While the Second Amendment is a debate for another day, Congress did not renew the Federal Assault Weapons ban, which survived several constitutional challenges, and it expired in 2004.

As a result, the public has very few hurdles to obtain these weapons. For this reason, we want the men and women sworn to protect our city to also have access to these guns.

Passions are high on both sides of this debate, as evidenced by a recent Petaluma City Council decision to purchase 54 semi-automatic rifles for police officers. Even the language used in the debate is loaded. One side takes offense at the term “patrol rifle,” saying it is a misleading euphemism for a weapon of war. To the other side, “assault rifle” is an equally hyperbolic term intended to demonize responsible gun owners.

The guns that the Petaluma Police Department are buying are Sig Sauer M400 semi-automatic rifles. They are similar in style to the AR-15, the weapon of choice for a majority of recent mass shootings in the U.S.

Fortunately, we have not experienced the horror of a mass shooting in Petaluma, but we are not immune to that possibility. In the event of such an act, we would want to know that our police officers have the equipment needed to neutralize or kill the perpetrator.

And yes, a bad guy with a gun can do plenty of harm before the police arrive. But as they rush to the scene, a police officer should feel confident knowing that they have the tools needed to do the job and return home safely to their family.

The city council’s 5-2 decision to buy the guns stoked controversy in Petaluma. Many opponents perhaps were unaware that the Petaluma Police Department already has semi-automatic weapons.

Petaluma in 1999 authorized the police to acquire these types of weapons, but arming every officer was never in the budget. Over the years, individual officers decided to purchase their own semi-automatic rifles, resulting in a mix of styles and sizes, like a colonial militia where everyone brings their own musket.

It is much more preferable to have standardized, department-issued rifles that are interchangeable among officers, who have all been trained to use the same model.

So, the question before the city council was not whether to arm the police with semi-automatic rifles. That decision was made 21 years ago. The question was: Should we replace the aging, mismatched private arsenal with standardized, high-quality equipment?

The council made the right decision.

Several people raised concerns about the perception of “militarizing” the police force. This is certainly a concern in other departments, specifically in departments with a history of police shootings and especially shootings of unarmed minorities. Police are there to keep us safe from harm; no one should have to live in fear of harm by the police.

The Petaluma Police Department has no such history of violence. In the past 15 years, Petaluma has had a total of two police shootings, both of them of involving suspects that brandished weapons at officers.

Police Chief Ken Savano leads a team of professional, responsible officers who have earned the trust of the citizens they are sworn to protect. They will not be patrolling the streets with rifles slung over their shoulders. The guns will be locked in a rifle rack, ready if needed but hopefully never used.

Finally, there was some consternation over Chief Savano’s outreach on this issue. In response to community concerns, Savano posted a lengthy explanation on Nixle. The optics of this are not great as many saw it as using the emergency alert system to lobby for taxpayer funds.

A lot of people have signed up for Nixle alerts in recent years to get the latest information on wildfire evacuations. While this may be their main frame of reference for the platform, Nixle allows for different types of messages from the urgent emergency alerts to press releases and community messages. Savano’s communication was not unprecedented, and a Nixle subscriber could simply choose not to read it.

So, the Petaluma Police Department now has the funding to upgrade the weapons they have been able to carry since 1999.

Meanwhile, an individual’s right to carry nearly any type of weapon imaginable was affirmed in 1791 when the Second Amendment was ratified. Limits to that power is a bigger discussion, but one worth having.

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