Ever since last month’s heinous shooting in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children and seven adults, Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin has been stopped, gotten phone calls and even been questioned at church about gun control.

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It was enough that he invited scores of gun rights advocates to a session Friday to clear the air on where he stood.

Speaking to nearly 100 people gathered at his headquarters, Irwin said he believes Americans “intuitively” understood the need to ban fully automatic firearms nearly 80 years ago, but won’t support a ban on semiautomatic weapons now.

Americans, he said, understood machine guns were “too much” during a Depression-era escalation in violent bank robberies and kidnappings.

“We’re telling our government: Don’t go any further than that,” Irwin said, referring to the congressional ban on fully automatic weapons in the mid-1930s.

The questions from audience members ran the gamut, ranging from fears about “boot thugs” taking over to a variety of statements about the sanctity of the Second Amendment and how to interpret it. Several of those in attendance exercised their open-carry rights, with pistols on hips, strapped to legs and in shoulder holsters.

Some in the audience expressed fears their guns could be taken away, a concern stoked by President Barack Obama’s gun control proposals, which include background checks for all gun buyers and a ban on assault weapons

Irwin said he favored improved background checks, including at gun shows, and better access to mental health care, but not reinstatement of a law that expired in 2004 that banned certain semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines.

Irwin began his remarks by relating that he personally lost some enthusiasm for firearms as anything other than a “tool” after he shot a robbery suspect early in his career as a young officer in Las Vegas in the 1970s.

Even so, he stressed “I don’t think only the bad guys should have guns” and that he deeply respects the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

“I need folks like you ready to stand up to help make Yakima County a safe place to live,” he said, adding he is sworn to uphold the state and federal constitutions.

Irwin explicitly stated he would not enforce any law that “appears” to be unconstitutional with regard to firearms, particularly any law that would require a “takeaway” of registered firearms.

“We will not allow it or support it. That’s too far,” he said.

Speaking of federal agencies, Irwin said he “holds my federal partners in high regard” but would never allow them to seize firearms from law-abiding citizens.

“If they (federal authorities) were to start going door to door and seizing guns, my goodness, that’s government overreaching way beyond what they should do, and I cannot imagine that happening,” he said.

Interestingly, those in attendance did not express vocal opposition to universal background checks, although several complained of potential pitfalls, particularly with regard to background checks on combat veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Despite his support for gun rights, Irwin said he is not fearful of Armageddon-type scenarios and respects both of Washington’s senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as President Obama.

“I didn’t vote for the president, but I respect the man and he is our president,” Irwin told the audience, adding his belief in a wise policy of “trust but verify.”

Rather than a ban on semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines, Irwin said a smarter approach would be to give school officials at places like West Valley High School, where his daughter attends, the same active-shooter training his deputies receive.

“I would feel much better for the safety of my daughter and other children,” he said.

• Chris Bristol can be reached at 509-577-7748 or cbristol@yakimaherald.com.