A conservative Democrat in his second term, Mack was incensed by the Brady Bill, which mandates a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases so local law enforcement officials can conduct background checks on the buyers.

"I can ill-afford to spend the time and money that I have now [for] fighting crime, and I'll be damned if I'm going to do background checks on honest Americans," declared Mack.

Mack was one of six sheriffs across the country to legally challenge the Brady Bill. But his suit was the first to lead to a decision--and that ruling propelled Mack to national fame.

A Tucson federal judge shot down part of the Brady handgun-control law in June, ruling that local police and sheriff's offices can't be required to check the backgrounds of gun buyers. U.S. District Judge John Roll held that requiring a "reasonable background search" violates states' rights protected by the Tenth Amendment.

Mack became an instant hero of the gun lobby, appearing on talk shows from Virginia to Alaska, and even holding a Donahue show debate with Sarah Brady about the federal law named for her disabled husband, who was shot and paralyzed during a failed assassination attempt on President Reagan.

Mack has become used to publicity.
"So, no photographer today?" asks Mack, greeting a reporter in his basement office in downtown Safford, a dusty farming town 160 miles southeast of Phoenix.

Assured that a photographer will be in touch shortly, Mack shakes off disappointment and gestures the reporter toward a chair.

The office is small, containing one desk, a couple of chairs and a sliding glass door separating Mack from his secretary, Ida.

Mack is dressed in a white, open-collar, western-cut shirt closed with snaps. His gold-plated eyeglass frames accent the sheriff's badge pinned to his pressed shirt. Together, those accessories provide a sharp contrast to Mack's jet-black, precisely combed hair.

On the wall hang numerous awards--some dating to his Safford High School football days. Others commemorate his recent burst on to the national scene as a staunch advocate of the right to bear arms.

Mack plunges into a lengthy lecture on the Constitution--reading chapter and verse from a pocket-size booklet containing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He requires every deputy to be familiar with the booklet, and to carry it at all times.

"I have sworn an oath in the name of God . . . to uphold and defend this document," Mack says.

His passion for the Constitution, he explains, is focused particularly on the First and Second amendments, which deal with freedom of the press and the right to bear arms.

"Freedom of the press and the right to keep and bear arms are the basic fundamental protections that the colonists held most dear," he says.

The discussion turns to the two books he's written in the last year, one on gun control and the other on the relationship of God, government and freedom. Mack says he is working on a soon-to-be-published autobiography and is toying with a run for Congress.

"I think I could beat [Representative Jim] Kolbe," he says.
He pulls a yellow legal pad from behind his desk and begins reading passages from his handwritten autobiography. He wonders aloud why success has followed him from childhood sports to today.

"The reason I went out for sports is I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to have a claim to fame," he says.

He credits his poise under the media spotlight he's enjoyed the last year to his drama training as a youth.

"I couldn't of never handled all these cameras and microphones in my face all the time, had it not been for my presence on stage," he says.

Mack's office is cool, dark and comfortable as the sun reaches its yearly pinnacle; it's the summer solstice. Outside, the temperature is close to 100 degrees.

As Mack discusses his life in two lengthy interviews, an old man lies beneath a desert tree, 20 miles to the south, 2,000 feet off U.S. Highway 191. Seventy-eight-year-old Frank Rodriguez had gotten lost in the desert. His life either had, or was just about to, come to an end.

Rodriguez had wandered from his campsite three days earlier--a Sunday--with his walking stick and two cans of beer. He left camp while his brother-in-law, Louis Herrera, was scouting the area for future hunting spots.

Herrera returned to camp Sunday evening to find Rodriguez gone. After searching the area, he drove to Safford and told the sheriff's office that Rodriguez was missing.

A search party was organized that night and continued until 4:15 p.m. the next day--Monday--when Mack called off the search after a Department of Public Safety helicopter failed to spot Rodriguez.

Mack says he suspended the search after less than 24 hours because tracking dogs traced Rodriguez to the highway, where the man probably got a ride. Mack's office called for, but then declined, assistance from the Greenlee County Sheriff's Office, which volunteered to send its horse-mounted search-and-rescue team. While Rodriguez's family members continued the search, Mack returned to Safford and conducted business as usual.

On Thursday, Mack shifted gears and restarted the search, using Greenlee County's mounted rescue team. This time, the sheriff personally took charge of the operation riding horseback through the scruffy desert searching for the old man.

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