Last month, President Barack Obama responded to the December tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary with a list of legislative proposals and potential executive actions in the fight against gun violence. Among them was a call to Congress to reinstate and strengthen a Clinton-era ban on assault weapons. And it was there that members of the law enforcement community nationwide drew a line in the sand. From Alabama to Oregon, hundreds of county sheriffs made it abundantly clear that their offices would have no part in enforcing a federal ban they viewed as a violation of the Second Amendment.

Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman says the issue quickly took on a life of its own in his district. Locals began calling and emailing him on a daily basis, their tones ranging from deep concern to outright fear. But Hoffman’s response differed from the more rhetorical reactions of other sheriffs.

“I’m not in a position to decide the law,” Hoffman says. “But I am in a position to uphold my oath of office.”

It may sound like a delicate balancing act, but Hoffman explains he’s in the business of enforcing state law, just as he did with Montana’s medical marijuana act. The substance’s federal classification as an illegal drug was a concern for federal—not local—authorities, he says.

Hoffman isn’t so much politically entrenched as he is upset about the direction of the gun control debate in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. He sees sense in some of the proposals set forth by the Obama administration, like those addressing mental health care; others he considers “eyewash,” or steps that will ultimately accomplish little. But he says any earnest conversation gets derailed by divisive topics like an assault weapons ban.

Congress hasn’t held a vote on any measure to ban assault weapons yet, despite continued pressure from Obama to do so. If a vote does happen, the margin for success is narrow since even some Democrats oppose the ban. But that hasn’t calmed tempers in the Bitterroot. Hoffman says he still hears daily from constituents, even though he’s trying actively to keep his office out of the debate. “In 10 years as sheriff,” Hoffman says, “there has not been another single issue that’s taken more of my time.”

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