Advocates see tough fight ahead for Oregon gun law changes
Stalled gun reforms in Oregon aren't likely to move ahead until next year despite a resurgent national debate following the shooting deaths over the weekend of 31 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
One of the Oregon Legislature's leading advocates of gun control, Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said legislators were still getting over the just-completed session. "We haven't started serious work on it yet," Burdick, who leads Democrats in the Oregon Senate, said. "But I certainly intend to make it a priority."
Advocates, for their part, say they're continuing their quest to cut down on gun violence, which claimed 528 lives in Oregon in 2017, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gun violence hit Oregon this past weekend as well. A former Portland State University student athlete, 22-year-old Deante Strickland, was killed in an Aug. 2 shooting in Northeast Portland that injured two others. In Salem, police are investigating two fatal weekend shootings and a third shooting Monday, Aug. 5, that hospitalized three.
"I think we are all heartbroken every time we hear of a mass shooting," said Hilary Uhlig, who leads the Oregon chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a nonpartisan group that aims to reduce gun violence. "It's always traumatic for communities to experience. But one thing that Moms Demand Action volunteers remember is that there are 100 people in our country who die of gun violence every single day."
Still, the El Paso and Dayton shootings have spurred interest from new volunteers and new local chapters of the Moms Demand Action group, Uhlig said. Legislators this year closed loopholes in the state's law to prevent people who pose a risk of harm to themselves or other people from having guns. The next reforms could come from the remnants of Senate Bill 978, which was on track for passage in the 2019 Legislature. The bill would have required gun owners to secure their guns, would have imposed regulations on "ghost" or 3-D printed guns and require gun owners to report lost and stolen guns.
Gov. Kate Brown conceded to Republican demands to kill the bill to end the first walkout by Senate Republicans in May. "Gov. Brown has consistently said that each session we do a little more to tackle common sense firearms legislation, and the passage of HB 2013 was that step this year," said Kate Kondayen, a spokeswoman for Brown, in an email. "Whatever step forward we can take on common sense firearm safety is positive, whether that's incremental or sweeping."
Kondayen provided no specifics. Brown, however, reacted quickly to the latest mass shootings. "How can we all wake up this morning and not resolve to put an end to this senseless gun violence?" Brown tweeted Sunday, Aug. 4. "Many of us feel powerless today after the events this weekend, but there is power in your voice, and power in your vote, and I encourage you to leverage that to take action."
Some voiced frustration with Democrats. "Any Oregon Democrats tweeting/talking about gun violence this week should be asked why they traded away gun safety legislation this session," tweeted Colin Clemente Jones, a former president of the City Club of Portland. "Their cries of powerlessness would be more credible if they didn't, you know, have the power to pass and enforce laws."
The surrender on the session's major gun reform legislation disappointed activists agitating for tighter state laws. Students from March For Our Lives, the activist organization spurred by the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, showed up at the Capitol to voice their displeasure with legislators after learning of the May deal.
It hit especially close to home after a close call at Portland's Parkrose High School, where a football coach tackled a student who brought a gun to the school. And now, the incidents in El Paso and Dayton should be another reminder, said Wylie Thompson, a student activist with the Oregon branch of March For Our Lives.
"Having this happen just has to bring a refresher to the legislators that this can happen here," Thompson said, "And this legislation is necessary to prevent something like this from happening again."
Uhlig, though, described Brown as a "gun sense champion."
"We know she wants to see stronger responsible storage laws in Oregon, and gun violence prevention," Uhlig said. "She's been a constant supporter of ours for a long time. So we understand that tough decisions had to be made."
Burdick stressed the reforms didn't fail — they were traded away. "I definitely saw a pathway for that bill," Burdick said. "And it did have a number of subjects in it, all of them enjoying broad public support, including support from gun owners, if you look at the polling."
Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, introduced the most comprehensive gun control bill of the 2019 session, requiring a permit to buy a gun. Wagner crafted the bill with Oregon students pushing for gun reforms after Parkland. But the proposal — Senate Bill 501 — didn't even get a legislative hearing.
Wagner said the uphill battle is frustrating for the students he worked with. "They are disaffected with the political process, and I can see why," he said.
Wagner said impactful gun controls should be a priority for the 2020 Legislature. What Wagner views as minor, common-sense tweaks struggle to find support, he said, in part because of what he sees as the power of the gun lobby. "We will take our wins where we can get them," he said, adding that he plans to continue working with youth in crafting policy.
"We favor legislation that will save lives in whatever form it will move," Uhlig said. "I think we are quite used to working incrementally as we continue to educate communities and educate our legislators about how we're feeling, and about how gun violence affects everyone."
Burdick, who was first elected in 1996 on a platform that included gun safety, said Oregon Democrats should make guns an issue in 2020 campaigns.
But, Burdick said, they'd also be wise to name specific policies to tighten gun laws — such as more robust background checks — rather than knocking on voters' doors and espousing the benefits of "gun control," a broad phrase that can put some off.
At least one concrete proposal has come into view, though. Supporters of Initiative Petition 40, which would require gun owners to store their guns securely, filed an effort last month to get the issue on the ballot in November 2020.
Petitioners hope that lawmakers pass a safe storage bill during the short session in 2020, but are moving forward with the initiative process to put it before voters in case the legislation doesn't make it through.
The petitioners — Henry Wessinger and Lisa Reynolds, both of Portland, and Paul Kemp of Happy Valley — want to reduce injuries and deaths associated with guns that have been accessed unlawfully, or by children.
Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass, said in an interview last month that there's a chance he could support some form of safe storage legislation.
"The devil's in the details in any of those types of proposals," said Mike Carew, chief of staff for the House Republican caucus.
Carew said that House Republicans aren't a "monolith" when it comes to gun policy, but many are interested in addressing the "root causes" of gun violence.
President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday, Aug. 5, that both parties should collaborate on measures to strengthen background checks for people who want to buy guns. Later that morning, during a speech to reporters in Washington, D.C., Trump reiterated a call for "bipartisan solutions."
He said he was directing the federal Department of Justice to work with state, local and federal agencies and social media companies to "develop tools" to flag potential mass shooters. "Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun," Trump said.
Such comments by Trump and others around mental health prompted the Oregon Health Authority on Monday to tweet a statement from the president of the American Psychological Association.
"Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing," APA President Rosie Phillips Davis said. "Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness."
(Ironically, one of the first pieces of legislation President Trump signed in February 2017 was H.J.Res. 40, which made it easier for people who were considered mentally incapable of handling their own affairs to purchase weapons.)
'It's just a tool'
If Oregon lawmakers pass any sort of reform, it will be against the will of some of the state's biggest gun advocates. Measures to restrict gun ownership also tend to bring out a vocal group of grassroots opponents.
Nelson Shew, president of the Oregon State Shooting Association, said he would not support any further gun control legislation. He thinks gun control is unconstitutional and doesn't work. "The only thing I would support is harsher regulations and enforcing things on criminals," Shew said. "Anyone who's going to do something like that, I don't think you can legislate against it. They're going to do it."
Shew said he might support banning drug users from having guns. He said he wouldn't support "red flag" laws where violence in someone's past would bar them from buying a gun. "Just simply because you had a bad divorce, and the wife says, 'Oh, he threatened me.' I could see a judge believing that," Shew said.
Shew said mass murderers would always find a way to get a gun. The problem lies in societal issues like bad upbringings, he claims. "Everything contributes to it, but I don't think the firearm contributes to it. It's just a tool," he said.
Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, doesn't favor gun control, either. Instead, he said, he wants 2017 legislation repealed that allows police to temporarily confiscate firearms after a family member or law enforcement officer petitions a judge that the person is dangerous and should be kept away from guns.
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