WASHINGTON — As a former King County sheriff, U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert is one of only six former law-enforcement officers in Congress. And as co-chairman of the bipartisan House Law Enforcement Caucus, the Auburn Republican would seem to hold particular sway on the debate over gun control.
Yet two polls last week in Washington state and in Reichert’s own district highlight a divide between the public’s support for curbing firearms and Reichert’s more muted stance on increased restrictions.
Four out of five voters in Reichert’s 8th District favor mandatory background checks before every gun purchase, according to a poll by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national anti-gun-violence group. That mirrored findings from a new Elway Poll showing that 79 percent of state voters support universal background checks.
Reichert, by contrast, won’t say outright whether background checks ought to apply to all gun sales, not just to those handled by federally licensed dealers, as is currently required.
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President Obama urged Congress to require universal background checks after the December mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., as part of his proposal to reduce gun violence.
Reichert believes background checks should be tightened to keep guns out of the wrong hands but has not said whether he favors 100 percent background checks.
Reichert also opposes any new restrictions on the types of firearms that can be sold, a position at odds with several leading law-enforcement groups seeking to ban new sales of semiautomatic assault weapons as well as to limit ammunition clips to 10 rounds.
Reichert is hardly the only Republican whose stance may conflict with their constituents’ sentiments. Among the 21 states and 36 congressional districts included in the mayors’ poll, voters in even Republican-dominated states like Kentucky backed background checks by a 4-to-1 margin.
And Reichert’s position is largely in sync with the GOP. For instance, most of the five other House members who are former sheriffs or FBI agents are united in their belief that outlawing certain types of weapons and ammunition wouldn’t do much to reduce gun crimes.
Reichert’s office has declined requests for interviews or to elaborate on his views on gun control. His spokeswoman, Leighanna Driftmier, said by email that Reichert thinks background checks should be improved — but would not say whether they should be expanded.
“We must ensure that those who should not have guns, such as criminals and the mentally ill, do not obtain them,” a statement from Reichert said.
As for banning particular types of weapons, Reichert said, “It is not assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans that reduce gun violence. Instead, gun violence is best reduced through data-driven approaches and the enforcement of our laws.”
Reichert recently introduced legislation that aims to help police combat gun violence in part by targeting the most likely offenders, including gang members and felons. He also supports providing more money to schools to install metal detectors or to hire security officers, and has talked about the need to improve mental-health care.
Reichert’s 8th District was redrawn a year ago to shift eastward and straddle the Cascades, becoming more rural and more Republican. Still, 80 percent of the 400 registered voters surveyed in the district favor requiring all gun buyers to undergo background checks, according to the poll by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The group, whose co-chairman is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, represents mayors from more than 800 towns and cities, including Seattle, Tacoma, SeaTac, Enumclaw and Issaquah.
The Elway Poll found that nearly the same percentage of voters surveyed statewide support universal background checks.
. Guns bought privately, including over the Internet, are exempt. That leaves what some gun-control advocates estimate are 40 percent of firearms sales, or some 6.6 million transactions annually, beyond screening for mental illnesses or criminal records.
The Elway Poll also found 54 percent support for banning the sale of semiautomatic weapons and magazine clips carrying more than 10 bullets. The poll of 412 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Washington’s congressional delegation is largely split along partisan lines on gun control. Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco, for instance, has said an assault-weapons ban will never pass the House and has called on Congress to focus, instead, on improving services for the mentally ill.
Democrats — among them Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Reps. Jim McDermott of Seattle, Rick Larsen of Everett and Adam Smith of Bellevue — want to ban assault-type weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Democratic House freshman Denny Heck of Olympia has been more equivocal on gun control. Two other freshman Democrats, Reps. Suzan DelBene of Medina and Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, support universal background checks, and Kilmer said he favors limits on ammunition magazines.
Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, where 20 first-graders and eight adults died, law-enforcement groups have been among the most vocal proponents of curbing access to guns.
Last month, police leaders from the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence appeared in Washington, D.C., to call for tighter gun laws. The partnership is an alliance of nine organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
All the member groups of the partnership, formed in 2010, support universal background checks and limits on magazine capacity; seven of the nine groups also back outlawing new assault-type weapons.
One notable absence is the National Sheriffs’ Association. The organization initially belonged to the partnership but does not today. Unlike police chiefs, sheriffs are elected, not appointed.
Larry Amerson, the Calhoun County sheriff in Anniston, Ala., and president of the association, said the group leaves it up to individual sheriffs to express their opinions.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
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