AUGUSTA — If lawmakers want to curb gun violence, they should begin not with laws to limit weapons but with the states of mind of the people who use them.

That was the message many legislators took away Thursday from a training session held by the Maine Sheriffs Association. The session aimed to provide an overview of issues at the heart of the ongoing gun control debate.

Randall Liberty, Kennebec County’s sheriff and the association’s vice president, singled out mental health as the key to reducing gun violence.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who examined a variety of guns at the session with other legislators, said afterward that the Legislature must get beyond discussion of the danger of particular firearms.

“The harder work is to take a hard look at our mental health system and see if we’re really getting at the root,” he said.

Katz cited treatment and access as top issues, suggesting the state has gone too far in de-institutionalizing mental health patients. At one time, as many as 1,700 patients were under direct supervision at the state mental health hospital in Augusta, he said.

The current state facility in Augusta, the Riverview Psychiatric Center, has fewer than 100 beds, and patients are moved off the campus and allowed greater independence in group homes in the city.

The two-hour session Thursday at the Senator Inn & Spa attracted dozens of legislators and law enforcement officials from around the state. Firearms instructors displayed various shotguns, revolvers, pistols and rifles, and the bullets used in each of them.

They explained the weapons and described their characteristics and differences, especially between types of shotguns and rifles, including assault rifles and hunting rifles.

The instructors also discussed commonly used handguns and gave an overview of Maine’s open-carry and concealed-weapons laws.

The sheriffs’ association said it is not taking a stance on gun control proposals.

Capt. Christopher Wainwright of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office downplayed the importance of the types of guns used in mass shootings.

“It’s the mental health side,” Wainwright said. “This won’t kill anybody,” he said, holding a rifle. “It’s the person behind it.”

“Any weapon up here can be an assault weapon,” said Chief Deputy Hart Daley of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office. “It depends on how it’s used.”

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the session confirmed his belief that police and sheriff’s deputies who deal with dangerous situations involving guns are more concerned about the gun user than the type of firearm.

“That’s where we need to focus our energy,” Wilson said.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Craig Crosby can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

ccrosby@centralmaine.com