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When it comes to guns, nothing is cut and dry

by: File photo Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson

Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson is correct when he said many rural residents are familiar with guns and gun use.

Quantifiable data on the number of hunting licenses issued in Columbia County wasn't readily available for each license type - whether deer or elk, water fowl or cougar - by press time.

But we know, just by talking to our friends and neighbors, Columbia County has a substantial hunter population. Guns come with the territory.

The sheriff's comments to regional media about inadequate deputy patrols and the keeping of firearms within the home are not new, but they do provide an opportunity to discuss guns and gun ownership.

If you choose to live in the country, many miles removed from social services such as police and fire patrols, the only reasonable conclusion is that you, the resident, are principally responsible for ensuring your family's safety.

Given that, it shouldn't be unusual for households to develop and implement safety plans for emergencies. What should you do in the event of a fire? What are the evacuation routes? Similarly, what is the routine if a stranger knocks on the door in the middle of the night? Should the kids be awakened and huddled into the basement? Do you call the police? Grab a gun and approach the door? Or just ignore it?

How do you determine whether the person at the door is a threat or not? Funding aside, 9-1-1 emergency services should always - always - be contacted in the instance of real or imagined safety threats.

The big question is what do do until help arrives, which, as the sherriff is broadcasting, could take considerably longer than desired. Given the sheriff's sustained report of inadequate patrols, we would like to see him assemble an educational packet, available both online and at the Sheriff's Office, on household threat assessment and response. In fact, he should hold free classes on the subject.

These are tough, potentially life-and-death decisions people are being asked to make. Each household is ultimately responsible for how it reacts in these situations.

Similary, each household bears sole responsibility if it chooses to invest in a firearm.

Though Dickerson said proper training is necessary for anyone considering adopting a household firearm as part of a crime prevention plan, his statement that rural residents are familiar with guns seems to gloss over the many risks associated with keeping a gun in the house.

First, children should not have unsupervised access to weapons. That seems like an elementary statement, but there are far too many reports of kids playing with guns, believing them to not be loaded, and inadvertently shooting themselves or a playmate. A simple Internet query returns story upon story of kids killing themselves or others with improperly stored firearms.

According to DHS data compiled in 2004, as many as 40 percent of Oregon homes have firearms. In those homes, 64 percent of guns are not locked, and nearly one in four is loaded.

Firearms are used in 54 percent of suicides, according Ceasefire.org, an Oregon gun-control group.

For those considering guns as a crime deterrent for their family, these statistics must be heavily considered.

Fortunately, however, it is rare, if ever, threatening household scenarios present themselves.

As Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher said in his letter last week, 'We live in a great county with many positive attributes, including a safe place to live. We have great law-abiding citizens who only want the best for their kids and neighbors.

'We need not succumb to fear.'

At the risk of fear mongering, however, society has its share of peril. Though dangerous household situations are rare, they do happen. Let's be realistic.

And law enforcement does not always have the answers.

In October 2007 a man entered an upper-middle-class subdivision called Columbia River View Estates in Scappoose.

Residents witnessed the man, Jeffrey Dean Turpin, 42, yelling a waving a handgun in the air. At one point he fired a shot into the sky. The Scappoose city police responded to a prowler-in-progress call around 2:30 a.m.

Despite the police presence, Turpin refused to surrender his weapon. He became increasingly agitated, holding the handgun to his head and making threats. He repeatedly approached one house, rattling its door knob. At one point, according to a follow-up investigation, he charged at the door.

That's when the home's resident, an off-duty Portland police officer, Greg Stewart, fired a handgun twice through a window next to the door and twice through the door. Turpin was struck twice, including a fatal shot to the chest, according to a Columbia County District Attorney Stephen Atchison's report on the follow-up investigation.

Stewart was justified in the shooting, Atchison said.

'It is not the law that a person in Mr. Stewart's position must allow an armed person to either enter the home and/or fire the first shot before action is justified,' Atchison wrote in his 13-page report.

Despite this close-to-home example, accidental shooting deaths far outnumber the occurrences of deranged, gun-wielding madmen who threaten our families.

All we ask of our readers is for them to consider the many consequences of gun ownership, and to honestly examine the greater risk to home and safety.