The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Beacon Stories

April 10, 2010

A call to arms?

Judge Mackey suggests townships residents consider gun ownership

JEFFERSON — Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court Judge Alfred Mackey is literally sticking to his guns regarding a comment he made to a Cleveland TV reporter earlier this week.

In an interview for a WKYC-Channel 3 story pertaining to layoffs in the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Department, Mackey suggested that township residents “arm themselves” as a way to ensure personal safety.

Only one road patrol, responsible for the entire county, is assigned to each shift. Further, the department does not have the staffing to perform investigations. The situation prompted Mackey to toss out his suggestion to the reporter.

“I said maybe law-abiding citizens need to consider getting a firearm because it’s going to be dangerous out there, and that’s what concerns me,” Mackey told the Star Beacon.

Commissioners Board President Joseph Moroski said Friday he had not seen or heard about the TV news report.

“That’s an interesting perspective. I didn’t see the performance,” Moroski quipped.

“I don’t have a comment,” said Commissioner Daniel Claypool, who did hear about the story. “We’re doing everything we can, with all the money that’s available to do the best we can. That’s all we can do.”

Sheriff William Johnson said earlier this week that there are at least 700 persons waiting to serve their sentences in the Ashtabula County Jail, as a result of funding cutbacks to his department. Johnson has only enough staff to keep the jail census at 30. As a result, only violent felons are being incarcerated, and there are 700 folks who should be serving sentences but aren’t. Johnson said their crimes include driving under the influence, petty and grand theft, domestic violence, probation violations, contempt of court and nonsupport. Sentences run from three days to a year.

That situation, combined with the potential for long response times for people who live in remote areas, has Mackey worried.

“I’m really concerned with the summer coming, what’s going to take place,” Mackey said. “DUIs, domestic violence. They are all out there.”

He said the first line of defense should always be to call the sheriff’s department and request assistance. The next step should be to call upon neighbors.

“They should form a neighborhood watch group,” Mackey said. “If they are in a rural area, they need to take the necessary precautions because it may be awhile before they are going to get help from law enforcement.”

It appears as if Mackey is preaching to the choir, because area gun dealers report a significant rise in handgun sales since the county’s budget crisis hit the sheriff’s staffing levels.

“Oh, yes, absolutely, a lot of handguns,” said Jim Retallick, owner of Sports Junction in Geneva. “It seems like an increase (especially) in sales to ladies.”

Retallick says his handgun sales are up by 50 percent compared to last year. Although he has not tracked the location of buyers, from his recollection, he said many of them were from the county’s more-remote areas.

Not all of the increase can be attributed to local conditions, however. Retallick said Americans in general seem to be in a panic and there is nationwide shortage of ammunition. Some people who don’t even own a gun are stockpiling ammo as an investment.

Johnson said he doesn’t have a problem with citizens exercising their constitutional right to purchase a firearm, but he does not want them to be misled about the responsibility that comes with that.

“If people think they are going to protect themselves (from litigation or charges) solely on the argument of not being able to get police to the scene, and someone gets hurt as a result of their actions, people need to realize they can face severe civil, if not criminal, litigation,” Johnson said.

He also said people who are thinking about buying a handgun need to take the appropriate training. Gun owners should not consider their weapon as a substitute for calling 9-1-1 first. Even with just one patrol car on the road, emergency calls are given top priority.

The Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners has placed a 0.5-percent sales tax increase on the ballot in an attempt to boost county revenue for the sheriff, courts and other essential services. Johnson says any comments he makes about the dire state of law enforcement in the county should be taken as fact, not idle threats to sway voters. He warns that the jail situation has the potential of bankrupting the county because it will take so long to clear the waiting list.

The sheriff confirmed earlier this week that he plans to file litigation against the board of commissioners in an attempt to restore his funding and force the court to rule on whether commissioners are legally bound to fund his statutory duties. He plans to wait until after the primary election before filing the complaint, however.

Meanwhile, Mackey, who lives in Saybrook Township, said he took his own advice years ago and bought a gun.

“I’ve had threats made,” he said.

While the judge encourages citizens to consider the handgun option, he said it was not his intention to become an advocate for it.

“I’m not going to be the poster child on this kind of an issue,” he said.

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