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Guns and the sheriff's office: St. Louis County candidates weigh in

In the wake of more deadly mass shootings, Jason Lukovsky and Gordon Ramsay talk openly about confronting gun violence.

FILE: Duluth standoff Feb. 26, 2021
Law enforcement officers in tactical gear take cover behind a squad car during a standoff on the 2300 block of West Fourth Street on Feb. 26, 2021.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Gun violence is inescapable in the United States. But for sheriff’s candidates in St. Louis County, there’s a limit to their interventions.

“We don’t make the laws,” said Jason Lukovsky, St. Louis County undersheriff and one of three candidates vying for the office.

In the wake of mass shootings, including the recent Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., massacres, specifically, Lukovsky and Gordon Ramsay spoke with the News Tribune about guns and their points of intersection with a sheriff’s office.

A third candidate who will meet the others in an Aug. 9 primary election, rural Cloquet gun store owner and part-time Moose Lake police officer Chad Walsh, declined to speak about the topic, saying in a text he was concerned the newspaper would “manipulate my responses.”

Walsh has previously objected to the newspaper’s coverage of his campaign finance violations and ties to an anti-government militia, a symbol of which he employs in his gun store logo.

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The candidates are running for an open seat created by Sheriff Ross Litman retiring at the end of his term after 20 years in the role.

Lukovsky and Ramsay both spoke about guns for 20 minutes, answering a series of specific questions related to a sheriff’s office’s involvement with guns:

  • What’s the plan of response for an active shooter in a school or public venue?
  • What are the types of firearms used by the sheriff's office compared to the public, and if it differs, how so? 
  • How does a sheriff’s office confront subjects known to have arsenal's worth of guns? 

“That’s where drones have come into play from an intelligence standpoint these last few years,” Lukovsky said of confronting arsenals of guns during situations such as standoffs.
“We’re gaining so much information about layouts of houses and firepower within a house,” he added.

042921.N.DNT.UndersheriffChangeC5.jpg
St. Louis County Supervising Deputy Jason Lukovsky, a candidate for St. Louis County sheriff.
Steve Kuchera / File / News Tribune

It’s the guns, and the volume of guns, that make it so law enforcement requires “cover” in the form of such things as armored vehicles, Lukovsky said.

Sometimes criticized as a “militarization of police,” armored vehicles and body protection are necessary, Ramsay added, for what’s at stake when confronting a society armed with more guns than people.

A former police chief in Duluth and more recently Wichita, Kansas, Ramsay said four of his officers were shot during three different scenarios during his final year in Wichita — an urban center with twice the population of St. Louis County.

“No one wants an occupying police force that is like an army — no one wants that,” Ramsay said of police militarization. “(But) when you run toward gunfire, you want equipment that is going to enable you to go home at the end of your shift.”

That equipment, of course, includes guns, and Lukovsky explained that deputies use “M-16s,” which he described as an AR-15 equivalent, as their “long guns,” in addition to shotguns and handguns. There’s nothing fancy about the M-16s, he said, describing them as outfitted with slings and scopes.

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“I would argue plenty of civilians are better equipped than we are,” Lukovsky said.

The sheriff’s office tends to use the M-16s in rural settings, where there are greater distances, including long driveways. The sheriff’s office also has “specialty weapons” assigned to emergency response units.

“Fortunately, we’re not dealing with people who have .50-caliber, really long-range stuff, so that’s good,” Lukovsky said. “For somebody to have an AR-15 or M-16, we handle it the same way. We know it’s guns. We know it’s high-powered.”

Ramsay and Lukovsky both agreed that even if responding alone, a single officer ought to “follow the gun shots” to encounter an active shooter.

“Full steam ahead,” Ramsay said. “You stop the shooter, so that no one else is injured. It makes total sense.”

Gordon Ramsay.jpg
Gordon Ramsay

Ramsay was a school resource officer in Duluth at the time of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999 — the massacre that heralded today’s deadly age in America.

“When Columbine happened, it changed the way best practices were as far as shooters in schools,” he said. “It went from gathering information and making decisions to ‘You follow the gunshots.’”

Ramsay talked about criticism to the response by authorities in the Uvalde shooting, in which 21 were killed and 17 more injured. More than an hour elapsed before law enforcement confronted and killed the Uvalde shooter behind a locked classroom door.

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“The communication piece out of Texas is going to come back to really show to be the key problem or one of the key problem areas,” Ramsay said.

As Duluth police chief for 10 years through 2016, Ramsay said he sought federal grants to conduct active shooter training in 2014 at old Duluth Central High School that focused on communication among multiple different agencies during chaos.

“Police, fire, EMS, dispatch — we trained together,” Ramsay said.

County deputies are required to undertake active shooter training every three years, Lukovsky said.

His wife is a schoolteacher, and they talk about scenarios like throwing a chair through a window and escaping an imperiled classroom that way. But there are no easy answers.

“God forbid we have a group of people storm a school, or gunmen outside shooting people as they leave,” Lukovsky said.

MORE ON THE ST. LOUIS COUNTY SHERIFF'S RACE:

This year, sheriff’s office training will occur in Babbitt.

“It opens our staff’s eyes,” Lukovsky said. “If there’s the sound of shots, we’re going in. … We hope it never happens, but we need to be prepared.”

The sheriff’s office has been part of multiple standoffs in recent years. The situations with a barricaded suspect alone are different. And even though deputies and other responders have taken fire in some of those situations, best practices call for a different approach.

“Slow things down, essentially wait them out, utilize your resources,” Lukovsky said. “We’ve been very fortunate in recent years to end most situations without incident.”

Neither Ramsay nor Lukovsky was asked about legislative measures, but Ramsay offered that the tough conversations surrounding “violence rates” need to be had. Throughout his career, he’s frequently heard from family members concerned about loved ones who are unstable and have access to stashes of guns. Such scenarios are reflected in calls for red flag laws, which set up a system of due process to remove guns from an individual.

“It’s a complex issue that’s hard to talk about,” Ramsay said about gun violence.

Lukovsky agreed.

“Unfortunately, we’re beyond the hurdle of no one wanting to talk about it,” Lukovksy added. “It’s become commonplace, and we have to talk about it if we want to know what we’re supposed to do.”

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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