OAKLAND — He carried an M-16 assault rifle as a member of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. He's carried hunting rifles as an avid sportsman in California.
That's why House Democrats say Rep. Mike Thompson is the perfect guy to carry their flag in the contentious gun-control battle sparked by last week's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, on Wednesday named Thompson, D-Napa, to lead a task force on one of American society's toughest issues, knowing full well that he'll start with high marks from both Republicans and Democrats.
"He's not going to demagogue this issue, which is commonly done in this business," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has worked on bills with Thompson in the past and says he "has a great deal of respect for the members on our side of the aisle."
But, perhaps hinting at the vigorous debate to come, Young said the Newtown rampage begs re-examination of issues from mental health to violent video games.
"All these things have to be looked at. The easy thing to look at, of course, is the gun," Young said. "If Mike brings some semblance of sanity to this whole argument ... he'll say we have to address the issue of violence totally."
Thompson earlier this week said the first priority is to re-enact an updated version of the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, a bill soon to be re-introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
"There is absolutely no reason why people should have access to military-type assault weapons or assault magazines. They serve no sporting purpose, they aid criminals and they open the door to mass shootings like the one we're mourning in Newtown," Thompson said Monday in response to this newspaper's survey of California House members on gun issues. He said he supported a "comprehensive approach to reduce gun violence," including detailed background checks, meaningful mental health improvements, strict firearm registration rules, assault weapon bans and assault clip bans.
But in an interview with this newspaper Wednesday, he said he knows "it's also important that law-abiding, mentally stable individuals have a right to buy and use legitimate firearms for legitimate purposes."
Thompson, 61, might be the Bay Area's most moderate House member; he's the region's only member of the Blue Dog Democrats, a coalition of centrists who tout fiscal conservatism and national security. He's also a former co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus -- which protects and advances rights of hunters, trappers and recreational shooters and anglers. But, contrary to some reports, he is not a National Rifle Association member, and the powerful gun lobby's 2012 congressional scorecard gave him a 17 percent rating. An NRA spokesman didn't return an email seeking comment Wednesday.
Thompson easily won re-election last month to an eighth term. He now represents a newly drawn district spanning from Clear Lake's shore down to the northern Contra Costa County communities of Pinole, Hercules, Crockett, Rodeo and part of Martinez.
After the 2008 election, President-elect Barack Obama was rumored to be considering Thompson for secretary of the interior, and Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, wrote to the transition team to encourage the appointment. On Wednesday, Miller said he "can't think of a better qualified person than Mike to lead this effort."
"I have hunted with Mike numerous times, and he knows gun safety," Miller said. "He inspires confidence and the levelheadedness to thoughtfully approach this issue."
Pelosi said Thompson's duties will involve "working with the administration and in a bipartisan way to ban assault weapons and assault magazines." He'll probably be working closely with Vice President Joe Biden, whom Obama tapped Wednesday as the White House's point man on this issue.
Thompson fully expects this new assignment will be tougher than, say, his co-chairmanship of the bipartisan Congressional Wine Caucus.
"It is going to be a heavy lift, but it's a very important issue, and I believe it's time," he said. "We need to have the discussion; everything needs to be on the table, and everyone needs to be at the table.
"This is a whole different world since this tragedy in Connecticut," he said. "Those lives that were snuffed out, those little kids have become America's kids."