Four separate gun-related incidents in Gulfport on a single day last week have prompted the city's police chief to jump-start a community conversation about guns.
Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania says violent crime in 2016 is actually down compared to last year. But he says it’s still not where he wants it to be.
One of the most heartwreching crimes this year: a 16-year-old in Gulfport died after he was shot by a 15-year-old.
The police chief is turning to the public for help.
“That’s where we as a society need to look at what we can do better," Papania says. "You don’t want to rely 100% on your law enforcement to do it. We as a community, we as families, we as churches, as businesses, we all have a role to play in it.“
Papania says it’s also a conversation he wants to have with lawmakers. The police chief says he knows guns are a polarizing issue. But, he says, law enforcement should have a seat at the table when gun-related legislation is being considered.
“I can’t stress enough, this isn’t politics for us," Papania says. "We’re going to be the ones who are going to have deal with it and sort this out when it becomes law. Are we making a safer community with these laws? And if we are, I’m on board. And if we’re not, I think we need to talk.”
One measure he’s watching this year is a bill, House Bill 786, that would let churches authorize members to carry firearms to protect the congregation. Papania says he has questions about some of the language, for example a section that allows weapons to be carried in holsters.
Bill author Representative Andy Gipson argues that part of the bill is just an enhancement of current law.
"It's been the law for over a year now, you don't have to have a license to carry a gun," he says. "And many people in the House, I would ventury to say, would say that the Constitution is our license to carry and keep and bear arms."
Police Chief Papania says he worries the bill may be unintentionally changing the state’s concealed carry law since the proposed law doesn't specify if clothes can be worn over the holster. He's also concerned that the term "felony" in the bill isn't clearly defined, and so could - possibly unintentionally - include non-violent offenses.
Papania says law enforcement has vital information to share during the legislative process.
“Because once you make it a law, the legislators don’t have to go out and see that it’s followed," he says. "Law enforcement does. And when you make it such that a man can walk down our streets with an assault rifle on his back, and I as a law enforcement officer can’t stop and engage him and question him about that weapon - I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing.”