Sheriff hopefuls agree on gun lockers

One candidate has sued the office over quality of home firearms storage

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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The safety of gun lockers issued by the Clark County Sheriff's Office is being raised as a campaign topic by one sheriff candidate, even as another continues a lawsuit against the office alleging that a faulty firearms locker he was provided resulted in the death of his son.

Republican candidate Chuck Atkins promised Friday he would conduct a comprehensive safety review of gun lockers within his first 90 days on the job, if elected. Such a review, the campaign said, would require the involvement of bargaining units whose members store department-issued firearms at home.

All four of the candidates for sheriff have said they support a closer inspection of the lockers. Former Deputy Ed Owens, who's running for sheriff as an independent, is suing the sheriff's office and the lockers' manufacturer. His lawsuit, filed in Clark County Superior Court in July, alleges the sheriff's office and Illinois-based manufacturer Stack-On falsely represented that the lockers could securely store firearms, even after the company recalled 1,320 safes manufactured between 2003 and 2004 because of defects identified in the safes' locking mechanisms.

Owens' 3-year-old son died after gaining access to the safe and accidentally shooting himself.

Owens was later fired by the sheriff's office. A prior lawsuit, filed in 2012, alleges the sheriff's office fired him for questioning the safety of the office's gun lockers. The sheriff's office said at the time that Owens was terminated for trying to blame his son's death on his stepdaughter and coercing a confession out of her.

Owens said he raised the issue of the office's gun safes with one of the bargaining units before he was fired. The sheriff's office hasn't responded directly to the claims because of the ongoing litigation.

Owens said he was the only candidate qualified to address the issue of gun-locker safety at the sheriff's office and maintained the office engaged in a cover-up. The sheriff's office has denied those claims in court documents.

"Such a review of this issue is long overdue and intentionally ignored by the sheriff's office administration," Owens said.

Scott Wilcox, manager for Atkins' campaign, said Owens' lawsuits against the sheriff's office did not factor into the campaign promise. He said it was an important enough campaign issue to address outside the context of Owens' legal action.

In a statement, Atkins said the goal of the gun safes' review would be to determine whether they currently meet the needs of sheriff's office employees. He added that a decision to replace the gun lockers would be made solely on the basis of safety.

"One of my key stances in this election is professionalism with accountability," Atkins said. "We owe it to our employees to make sure we provide them with high-quality gun storage devices."

In addition to Atkins and Owens, the other candidates — Sgt. Shane Gardner, a nonpartisan, and Republican John Graser, a retired sheriff's office commander — said they'd also look into gun-locker safety, if elected.

Graser, who retired from the sheriff's office 15 years ago, said deputies need to have confidence in the tools they use, and supported a safety review of the current lockers.

"If there's any question about them at all, it's time to look for a new safe," Graser said.

Gardner agreed, saying he'd work to assuage safety concerns within the sheriff's office.

"If we're using faulty safes, I think it will need to be addressed," Gardner said. "They call them safes for a reason."