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PROFILE : Arizona Sheriff Sticks to His Guns : Lawman makes a name for himself by attacking Brady law and backing militia groups. His words find favor at home.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Mack, the sheriff of Graham County, Ariz., spent his lunch hour one day last week at a Mexican restaurant in this tiny town, trying to eat while a parade of friends stopped to shake hands and say hello. Everyone called him Richie.

Later that night, Mack was on CNN explaining to a nationwide television audience his views on citizen militias, the federal government and the bombing in Oklahoma City.

The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. In one setting, Mack is an easygoing rural sheriff in the Andy Taylor mold; in another, he’s a constitutional zealot worried that “the Clinton regime” will create a police state that usurps America’s freedom. “Are we talking about establishing a Gestapo in America?” asked Mack.

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In an interview in his Safford office, he called the Internal Revenue Service a “terrorist threat” to Americans and strongly denounced the federal raid that ended in a deadly fire at the Branch Davidian cult compound near Waco, Tex., two years ago.

Most of all, he said, he fears Washington politicians will exploit what happened in Oklahoma City to grant the government more power over citizens.

“Waco and Oklahoma have scared me to death, and I mourn for the babies and others killed in both places,” said Mack, whose father was an FBI agent. “But what scares me even more is that we will become so emotional that we’ll search for a quick fix that destroys the freedoms our Founding Fathers fought for.”

It’s not the first time the top cop in this remote eastern Arizona farming county has found himself in the national spotlight. Last year, he became the first law officer to sue to overturn the Brady gun-control law.

And he won a partial victory when a federal judge ruled last June that Congress had exceeded its authority under the 10th Amendment and couldn’t require police and sheriff’s departments to perform background checks on gun buyers.

Since then, he has done 150 radio interviews, appeared on the “Donahue” TV talk show, received more than 4,000 letters and autographed hundreds of T-shirts depicting a Minuteman and the words, “What part of infringed don’t you understand?”

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Mack, a 42-year-old father of five, devout Mormon and author of a book titled “From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns,” is not an easy man to characterize.

As a senior at Safford High School in 1971, he was named male drama student of the year and athlete of the year for his football heroics.

He is adamant that citizens have the right to bear arms, but he didn’t own his first gun until 1988, the year he was elected sheriff of Graham County.

Mack also is a talented singer who played Capt. von Trapp in a local theater production of “The Sound of Music.” One Arizona newspaper called him a renaissance redneck.

“I guess I’m not the typical pot-bellied, cigar-smoking redneck sheriff,” said Mack, whose first job in law enforcement was as a parking meter reader in Provo, Utah. But the same man who describes firing assault weapons as a “hoot” also says he believes that federal agents might be following him.

Two months after the Brady lawsuit, Mack says he and his family were in Mesa, Ariz., shopping for school supplies when he noticed a man who kept turning up near them. Four hours later, the same man practically bumped into the Macks in a mall on the opposite end of Maricopa County. He said the man looked at him sheepishly and took off.

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Mack believes it was a tail. He says a lot of strange things have happened to him since the suit.

He also says he’s received a credible report that his phone was tapped. Although he’s convinced the federal government is “absolutely capable” of exacting revenge in that manner, he never bothered to investigate.

To some, Mack’s comments place him in the paranoid extreme, a world inhabited by government conspirators and U.N. soldiers come to disarm Americans. But to a growing number of Westerners whose distrust of government has a long pedigree, he’s the sheriff on a white horse.

“He’s a hero in the West because he was the first to stand up against the Brady Bill,” says Guy Baier, an executive with People for the West, a group that advocates multiple uses of public land.

“If you want to find a Western sheriff who stands for law-and-order and my rights, it’s him. He’s a Gary Cooper-type, a real solid character.”

Mack’s concern now is that those who would limit the freedom to own a gun are using the Oklahoma bombing to advance an agenda of gun control. He calls that “despicable,” saying the two are unrelated.

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But Dennis Henigan, general counsel for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington, says militia groups rose to prominence because of gun-control laws, such as the recently enacted ban on some assault weapons.

“They believe they need to match the government’s firepower,” Henigan said.

Citizens rising against a tyrannical government is how the country was founded, said Mack, who believes that it is wrong to demonize all citizen militias. “Paul Revere was part of a militia,” he pointed out.

In his own county, he has formed a citizen posse that can respond, armed, at his call to help capture criminals and aid in natural disasters. But Mack said he might have to summon his posse in a fight taking place between two federal agencies and Graham County supervisors.

For eight months the county has been trying to get the go-ahead from the Army Corps of Engineers to reopen the flood-damaged Soloman Bridge over the Gila River. The work has been delayed by the Fish & Wildlife Service, which is concerned about the endangered razorback sucker.

Frustrated Graham County supervisors voted to go ahead with the repairs, in clear violation of federal law. The six-day work project began April 21, and federal officials have thus far made no effort to stop it.

“I would use the posse and every officer in my department if they tried to arrest county officials,” Mack said. He believes such resistance would be comparable to civil rights heroine Rosa Parks’ refusal 40 years ago to obey the law and move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.

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Graham County Manager Joe Carter says he hopes the dispute doesn’t boil over, but he’s confident Mack will back him if it does. “We know we can count on Richie.”

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