Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight is no stranger to the ways of Washington. He's been there several times to testify about the need for tighter gun control measures, his audience typically a sea of empty chairs and one or two sympathetic lawmakers.

But after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., late last year, the longtime small-town chief finds himself front and center in the national debate about the proliferation of guns and gun violence.

"We are, sadly, being bathed in a spate of unimaginable violence on a mass scale," Knight said in an interview last week.

Knight took that message to a congressional hearing in Washington last month, where he and the Newtown superintendent testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. Then it was off to the White House, where Knight heard President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden present their new gun control proposals for the first time.

When Obama appeared in Minneapolis last week, Knight was there, too.

Knight has advocated tighter firearms laws for decades, including banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, requiring universal background checks for all gun buyers, and bolstering the background check system with more complete records, including mental health information.

The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups fiercely oppose such measures, calling them unnecessary, burdensome and contrary to the rights guaranteed in the Second Amendment.

A community at odds

Knight has heard those concerns for years, and again as recently as last Tuesday at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. About 150 people attended a standing-room-only presentation where Knight and Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson talked about guns and community safety.

Olson does not agree with Knight about the need to ban assault weapons and limit magazine clips, and received applause for saying so.

Most of the 18 people who spoke said that the reason Chaska is safe is because many people have guns to defend themselves. They worried that stricter background checks could ultimately lead to confiscation of their guns.

"If we make the people of Chaska or Carver County not have any guns, the crooks and criminals would know that this is a safe place to go and take advantage of people," said Brad Gestach, of rural Cologne.

The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association takes no official stand on assault weapon bans and magazine restrictions, but it strongly endorses universal background checks for all gun sales, and better information and access to mental health information to evaluate people seeking gun permits.

Bob Pecchia, the group's executive director, said some police chiefs disagree with Knight and may think he's a little "strong-headed" on gun issues, "but if you look at how he's developed his opinions and his passion for the topic, that's how things get changed."

'Speaks from the heart'

Knight, 60, started as a Chaska patrol officer in 1976 and rose through the ranks before being appointed chief in 2000. His desk in downtown Chaska faces a wall of photos and plaques from a long history of police work and leadership, and a colorful array of running bibs from marathons and other races run during the past several years.

"He's got a heart for the community and serving it," said former Chaska Mayor Bob Roepke. "Some might view it as seeking center stage or the spotlight, but he speaks from the heart and with a very sincere approach and stands up for what he thinks is right."

That includes embracing the growing Latino population in Chaska, which is about 20 miles southwest of Minneapolis. Knight learned Spanish and made Spanish lessons available to police officers. He also helped organize a town meeting on bullying early in 2011 and was invited that March to speak at a national summit on bullying at the White House.

"The chief has been the leading figure on the public radar screen for diversity education," said Gordon Stewart, pastor of the church where Knight spoke last week.

Knight hopes that the "tectonic shift" in public attitudes and congressional interest about gun control since the Newtown slayings will bring about some much-needed change. But he's sorry that it took a tragedy to spur a call to action.

"My officers take guns off dangerous people nearly every day, with great regularity," he said. "It never makes the news because nothing's happened."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388