PMG special report: Oregon sheriffs balk at new gun measure
Voters in Oregon passed Measure 114, which will put new restrictions on ownership of guns.
But many sheriffs across the state say they won't enforce the will of the voters, or predict that Measure 114 won't stand legal muster.
Even a statement from the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office was more about evaluating the measure, rather than a straight "yes," when asked if the new law will be enforced in the Portland area.
In response to a question from Pamplin Media Group about whether incumbent Sheriff Mike Reese or incoming Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O'Donnell will enforce Measure 114, sheriff's spokesperson Christina Kempster would only say, "The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office is evaluating how Measure 114 may impact operations. We will be working with lawmakers, key stakeholders and our public safety partners to determine how to best implement a system that meets the requirements of Measure 114."
Pamplin Media Group has asked the sheriff's office to clarify the response.
Voters OK bill
Measure 114 qualified for the ballot through a petition drive by a coalition of religious and other organizations. It would require people to complete firearms training before they can obtain permits to purchase guns. It also would limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds each.
It is the first gun regulation initiative on the ballot in 22 years, although the Legislature has passed several measures of its own over the past seven years.
The measure requires gun buyers to obtain a permit from a sheriff's office and to pay $65. It also requires buyers to pay for an approved firearms-safety course. And it requires them to submit photo identification, provide fingerprints and pass a criminal background check.
Crook County Sheriff John Gautney has twice spoken out publicly against Measure 114, calling it unconstitutional. However, at this point, it appears the local sheriff's office will still enforce the law once it takes effect in January, according to Pamplin Media Group's Central Oregonian.
"Ballot Measure 114 is bad for the state and is a direct attack on your constitutional rights under the Second Amendment," Gautney stated in a public letter posted to the sheriff's office's Facebook page prior to the election.
He doubled down on his views after the Nov. 8 election, saying he continues to be "adamantly opposed to this ill-conceived attempt to restrict our right to legal firearm ownership" and adding that it is his belief that Measure 114 will be challenged in the courts on the grounds of being unconstitutional, among other legal issues.
But Gautney went on to point out that the measure passed by Oregon voters and that, unless legal challenges delay its scheduled implementation, it will become law on Jan. 15.
Jason Pollock, Jefferson County Sheriff, said his office will not enforce Measure 114, according to PMG's Madras Pioneer.
"Measure 114 does not address the issues we face; it puts a blanket over everyone," Pollock said.
In the letter released by Pollock, he wrote, "For far too many years, a fraction of Oregon counties have exerted far too much control over rural Oregon. I believe Measure 114 is a violation of the United States Constitution and is contrary to current federal court precedent."
He said the measure will not improve public health or safety and called it "pure anti-gun politics."
In his statement, Pollock said the gun bill isn't the answer to a variety of issues facing Oregon, including gun violence. Instead, he said, the state is worsening public safety by decriminalizing drugs, scaling back its mandatory sentencing measure, and failing to address a homelessness and mental health crisis.
"Oregon faces a crisis in its criminal justice system because the leftist elements in Salem have refused to hold criminals accountable for their behavior," Pollock said.
These issues have been "exacerbated by the overreaching police reform measures imposed upon Oregon (counties) by the knee jerk reaction to events in 2020 in Minnesota," Pollock said, appearing to reference the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked nationwide protests for racial justice and policing reform. Protests against police brutality aimed at African Americans rocked downtown Portland for weeks in 2020.
Before election night, the Oregon Sheriff's Association was one of many groups to oppose the measure.
For Yamhill County Sheriff Tim Svenson, "It is not a matter of enforcement, it is a matter of capacity."
Svenson said his offices doesn't have enough staff to dedicate to "tracking down" offenders of this new law magazine ban.
"I did not support it," he told PMG's Newberg Graphic. "I do not agree with the measure as it imposes further regulations on already law-abiding citizens and violates a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Second Amendment."
This is not the first time this year that Yamhill County found itself at odds with the state over the issue of gun ownership. In July, a circuit court judge struck down Yamhill County's controversial Second Amendment sanctuary ordinance, characterizing it is an affront to state law.
Ordinance 913, adopted by the commission in April 2021 and patterned after ordinances adopted in other counties, barred county employees — such as those at the Sheriff's Office — from enforcing or using county resources to enforce gun laws originating from the state or any other "extraterritorial" agency outside the county, as well as any statute relating to firearms. The state sued and won. "The ordinance is declared void in its entirety," Yamhill County Circuit Judge Ladd Wiles said, adding "I'm telling you, it's unconstitutional."
Sheriffs of Linn, Union and Sherman counties also say they won't enforce the gun bill.
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson did not respond to a request for an interview through his spokesperson Monday.
Lincoln County Sheriff Curtis Landers said he expects the measure to be successfully challenged in court.
"This is a very complex measure and has many issues to address," Landers said the week after the election. "Could the measure be challenged, and could a stay be issued? Absolutely, and we believe it will be. (But) we are moving forward anticipating on Dec. 8, 2022, this will be the law in our state."
Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast issued a statement Wednesday evening, Nov. 16, saying his office will enforce the law. He also predicted it will face a court challenge. "As with any new bill or legislation, we'll be diligent in our efforts to understand the requirements, develop processes and procedures to comply with mandated provisions, and vigilantly monitor any potential litigation to ensure we are abiding by current case law."
The sheriffs' statements come amid a growing regional debate over guns that follows a string of recent shootings in Jefferson and Deschutes counties.
In July, a man allegedly stole an AR-15 from a truck at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, prompting a police chase through Madras that ended in law enforcement shooting him.
In August, a 22-year-old man with an AR-15-style rifle opened fire on shoppers at a Bend Safeway, killing an 84-year-old man, a Safeway employee and himself, a shooting that made national headlines.
At least four people have been shot and killed in Deschutes County this year, according to the Deschutes County District Attorney's Office.
On Oct. 29, two people came under fire while sitting in their car in downtown Madras. Now, two people face charges of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder in connection with that shooting, and a teen faces attempted murder charges, according to the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office.
About three days after that Madras shooting, a 24-year-old man was shot and killed in a Madras neighborhood as Halloween trick-or-treaters walked nearby. No one has been arrested in that shooting, Jefferson County Deputy District Attorney Brentley Foster said.
Kai Richards, a 14-year-old Madras resident, said he sees promise from the state's latest gun law in protecting students from shootings. "When I go to school every day, it's a very realistic reality that someone could come into school with a large gun and kill a ton of students and kill me," he said.
But Richards, a student at Redmond Proficiency Academy, voiced concerns over the sheriff's statement, saying: "It's really concerning to have someone who's supposed to be protecting me choosing to do something that wouldn't protect me."
A close vote
Measure 114 passed with 51% of Oregonians voting in favor and 49% rejecting it.
The state's democratic strongholds — seven counties mostly located in the Willamette Valley — came out strongly in support of the measure. Twenty-nine less populous counties rejected it, many of which are in rural areas that tend to lean conservative.
Restrictions under the measure are supposed to begin in mid-January, but gun rights advocates are preparing to battle it in the judicial system, an effort that could delay its implementation, The Oregonian reported over the weekend.
Crook County's Sheriff Gautney and other sheriffs across Oregon have questioned whether their offices have the ample funds and staffing necessary to balance the new permitting system with calls for service. He said his fear is that the new responsibilities from the measure might force his office to prioritize calls for service.
"My intent will be that person crimes take priority and major property crimes will take priority," he said. "Everything else will have to take a back seat to that."
Should the measure survive the impending court battles, Gautney acknowledged his office will be required to do what a majority of Oregon voters have tasked them to do, noting that sheriffs do not have the authority to rule whether a law is unconstitutional or not.
"If this is upheld, then fine, we will move forward with what we have to do," he said. "This is a measure that was put before the people and the people of the state of Oregon voted for it. That's a right under our Constitution as well."
Contributing to this story: Editor Jason Chaney of the Central Oregonian; Madras Pioneer reporter Kiva Hanson, Woodburn Independent editor Justin Much, Portland Tribune reporters Max Egener and Peter Wong, Tribune editor in chief Dana Haynes, Newberg Graphic managing editor Gary Allen, and The Bend Bulletin, a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group.
A previous version on this story misidentified the spokesperson who provided comments from Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. It has been updated with the correct spokesperson's name.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.