Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas told gun rights supporters Tuesday night that he favors a middle ground with respect to restricting guns, even as he acknowledged that the state's current assault weapons law has on one occasion left his staff baffled.

Freitas was speaking on a panel at a forum sponsored by the county's Republican Central Committee. Among the panelists were Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, and a leader of the gun rights group Calguns Foundation.

Freitas acknowledged he had yet to decide personally where to draw the line between allowing unlimited gun rights and prohibiting all gun possession. But he asked the audience of more than 170 people to consider every friend, family member and acquaintance they know.

"Should they all have a loaded gun all the time?" Freitas asked. "I have some family members who shouldn't."

Even so, Freitas said he was pleased by the U.S. Supreme Court decisions establishing an individual's right to possess firearms in certain circumstances. He also suggested that he has provided more concealed weapons permits than his predecessor.

Freitas said the Attorney General's Office "went bonkers" when he threw up his hands on whether a particular rifle confiscated locally fell under the state's assault weapons ban.

Freitas said neither the deputies who seized the weapon nor his department's firearms experts could determine whether the rifle in question was actually illegal. The sheriff turned to the state for help and found "the Department of Justice can't figure it out." In the end, he said he found the law so confusing that he told the firearm's owner, "you win."

The audience broke out in applause Tuesday when the moderator in his introduction noted that Donnelly "had founded the largest chapter of Minutemen" in California, a reference to the organization where private citizens had sought to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing into the U.S.

Donnelly, who has formed an exploratory committee for a possible candidacy for the governor's race in 2014, urged the audience to oppose the efforts in Sacramento and Washington to limit gun ownership that he said is protected by the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

"I would posit that what is truly at stake is the First Amendment" and the ability of Americans to resist improper "state power," he said.

Gene Hoffman, a founder of the San Carlos-based Calguns Foundation, said the group is working in California and other states to allow citizens to legally carry weapons in public.

He noted that the most frequently purchased rifle in the U.S. is the semiautomatic AR-15, a weapon that some gun control advocates are trying to ban. If the Second Amendment doesn't protect such a popular rifle, Hoffman said, "then it doesn't protect much."

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or