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Measure would mirror bill sacrificed in Legislature to secure school funding votes

PMG FILE PHOTO - An initiative that organizers hope will appear on the November 2021 election ballot would require gun owners to secure their firearms in their homes.

Advocates are reviving efforts to require Oregon gun owners to securely store their guns.

Supporters filed an initiative petition in mid July to bring the issue to voters again in November 2020 if the Legislature fails to pass similar legislation next year.

The petitioners — Henry Wessinger and Jenna Passalacqua, both of Portland, and Paul Kemp of Happy Valley — say they want to reduce injuries and deaths associated with guns that have been accessed unlawfully, or by children.

Supporters filed a similar petition last year, but withdrew it after it became clear they didn't have time to gather enough signatures in support to get it on the ballot. They then advocated for lawmakers to pass a storage law this year.

But their idea collided with the legislative session's fiery politics. A major gun control bill, which included the storage requirements, was killed as part of negotiations in May, when Senate Republicans refused to attend floor sessions in protest of a new business tax.

Gov. Kate Brown brokered a deal in which majority Democrats would drop the gun bill and a bill tightening vaccination requirements for public school students to get the Republicans to come back. When Senate Republicans walked out for the second time in June, time was lacking to bring back the storage requirements as a stand-alone proposal.

Not discouraged

Initiative Petition 40 would require gun owners store their guns with a cable or trigger lock engaged, or in a secure container with a tamper-resistant lock. Specifications for the container would be established by the state's health agency.

Generally speaking, the petition's provisions would be felt only by gun owners after it became evident that a gun wasn't stored to the specifications in the measure: For example, if a child obtained a gun that was not securely stored, and got hurt, the gun owner would be held liable.

Under the measure, a gun owner would be expected to report lost or stolen guns to police within 24 hours of learning of the loss or theft. The measure wouldn't mean that police would go proactively into homes to check that guns are stored safely.

Henry Wessinger, who filed the petition July 18, said he believes the legislation can pass if it is its own bill in the short legislative session next year.

"While we were disappointed that we didn't get safe storage passed in 2019, we're not discouraged," Wessinger said, "Because we think that we've built a really strong base of support and are well positioned for passing it in the 2020 short session."

Not a partisan issue

Safe storage is the House's top gun safety priority in 2020, a spokesman for House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) said in an email. Proposing the ballot initiative is a sort of insurance policy — a backup plan in case lawmakers don't pass a safe storage bill in the 2020 session.

For the measure to pass next year, it will have to gain support from a majority of representatives and senators in each chamber. Democrats hold comfortable majorities in each chamber, but not all of them have supported stricter gun laws in the past.

Wessinger said he believes the bill can get enough support. He maintains that a good share of Oregonians support the proposal, and that it's not a partisan issue.

When petitioners attempted to get a similar measure on the ballot last year, they commissioned a poll from Patinkin Research Strategies that showed 65 percent of respondents would have supported a measure "requiring firearms be locked up when they are not being used and requiring the reporting of lost or stolen guns."

Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass said July 18 that he had not had a chance to review the initiative petition, but there is a possibility he could support some kind of safe storage bill. "I certainly don't know what they would look like," he said.

Baertschiger added that he believes more education would help keep children safe from accessing guns.

"I grew up around guns in our household and kids were taught, 'Don't touch guns,' period," he said. "No problem. When you were a kid, and you see a gun, you knew, don't touch it. I think we've lost some of that in our households. ... We're not going to let our 6-year-old go out and run a chainsaw, are we? Why would we let him have access to a gun?"

'Changing behavior'

The National Rifle Association likely would oppose another storage bill, according to Roger Beyer, an Oregon lobbyist for the group.

The NRA opposed Senate Bill 978, the overall gun control bill. That bill contained the safe storage provisions, with some key differences from the petition. For instance, SB 978 contained criminal penalties for the gun owner if a minor obtained a firearm unlawfully and the killed or injured someone, a provision that petitioners have removed from IP 40.

"We feel very strongly that we'd like to use a seatbelt model of changing behavior," Wessinger said. "The goal is not to penalize gun owners."

Most Oregon gun owners store their guns in ways that align with the petition, Wessinger said. His goal is to encourage the remainder to do so.

Supporters must gather 1,000 sponsorship signatures to get ballot language approved to circulate Initiative Petition 40. The petition then needs 112,020 signatures to get onto Oregonians' ballots next November.


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