Yakima County sheriff says he opposes assault weapon ban

Citing his desire to protect constitutional rights, Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin announced Tuesday he is against a ban on assault weapons, but favors background checks on all firearms transactions.

In an interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic, Irwin said he decided to announce his position on two of President Barack Obama’s most controversial gun control proposals ahead of a clear-the-air meeting Friday with supporters of gun rights.

He acknowledged his position would probably fully satisfy neither supporters of gun rights nor supporters of increased gun control after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., last month that claimed the lives of 20 grade-school children and seven adults.

“It is what it is,” said Irwin, who has been the county’s top elected law enforcement official since 2001, adding, “You better be speaking from the heart and not to the crowd. That’s how I try to live.”

Explaining his opposition to the reinstatement of a ban on assault rifles that expired in 2004, Irwin said he formerly supported the ban but now questions its usefulness and constitutionality.

Instead, he spoke of the need to improve awareness and treatment options for people suffering from mental illness and “taking care of people causing the problems, not whatever tool they’re using.”

Sidestepping a question as to whether he would enforce a ban if Congress were to renew it — several county sheriffs across the country have said they won’t — Irwin said it “wasn’t an effective tool” and that focusing on a certain type of weapon would not prevent mass shootings.

“I don’t agree that an assault rifle or high-capacity magazines should be the focus or icon of this,” he said. “It’s people. That’s the common denominator. People.”

As for his position on background checks, Irwin confirmed that he means all firearms transactions — not just sales at gun stores, but also at gun shows as well as private sales or trades, which are currently exempt.

“There should be some sort of a background check on anybody that’s going to obtain a weapon,” he said. “Otherwise, why require them of dealers, as a business?”

Irwin said he decided to announce his position and his oath to support the U.S. and state constitutions, both of which include the right to bear arms, in anticipation of a meeting at his office with supporters of gun rights.

Irwin said he called the meeting because of questions he’s received via email, by phone or even at church from people who are afraid the Obama administration is using the Newtown shootings as an excuse to begin a serious erosion of gun rights.

“They’re very concerned about that,” he said.