Unable to pass new gun-control bills this year, months after the state’s deadliest shooting, Oregon Democrats are diving into campaign season with promises to try again in 2017.
House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, wants to revive a measure that would limit default gun sales when background checks take longer than expected, after the bill earned tepid support and died in the Senate last month.
Advisers for Gov. Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum huddled with advocates in separate meetings Thursday to hear about executive actions they might take without legislative approval. Brown, up for election this year, had already vowed to “explore” that possibility last month.
And Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, at a forum hosted by the Oregon Alliance for Gun Safety, reiterated her support Wednesday for enacting gun-violence restraining orders. That idea, already in place in California, would create a court-sanctioned mechanism for removing guns from people believed to be at risk of harming themselves or others.
“This is the one that is crying out for help,” said Burdick, one of the Legislature’s most ardent backers of gun restrictions.
Those comments land at a delicate time for Democrats, teeing off elections that could see the party struggle to maintain its near-supermajority control of the Legislature. But party leaders argue their insistence on pressing ahead, never mind outrage from Oregon’s vocal gun rights community, speaks to an ongoing shift in the state’s politics.
Democrats in the House and Senate grew their majorities in 2014 thanks to support from gun control groups such as Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety. Then, after a measure expanding background checks to private sales passed in 2015, four lawmakers hit with recall petitions watched each of those efforts wither away for lack of support.
“People are starting to understand that the loud, screaming voices out there do not represent the public,” Burdick said Wednesday. “The dangerous position on this issue is against reasonable gun safety legislation. Vote against reasonable legislation at your peril.”
That message hiccuped in 2016, however.
In the session’s first week, lawmakers killed a bill by Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, that would have banned the sale of a gun for 30 days if someone warns authorities the would-be buyer might be in a mental health crisis.
And Williamson, using her clout as one of the House’s top two Democrats, fought hard but failed to pass her bill on default gun sales.
House Bill 4147 was dubbed the “Charleston loophole” bill, named for a mass shooting at a Charleston, S.C., church that killed nine. The suspected gunman was allowed to purchase his weapon even though his background check slipped past the three-day window. Clerical errors kept an inexperienced investigator from learning, within the waiting period, that the suspected gunman had disqualifying drug offenses.
Williamson brought in the daughter of a Charleston victim. She also agreed to amendments that extended Oregon’s current waiting period for gun sales from three days to 10, after initially asking to make buyers wait as long as it took for their checks to come back.
But the bill barely cleared the House, earning 31 of 60 votes. By the time it reached the Senate, that chamber’s Judiciary committee had closed down. The bill languished in the Senate Rules Committee — a victim of the timing challenges inherent in a five-week session that Republicans had already slowed to a crawl with procedural maneuvers.
In the end, Williamson won support only for new money meant to help the Oregon State Police conduct background checks more easily.
“Her plan is to reintroduce the Charleston loophole bill,” said Scott Moore, a spokesman for Williamson.
Oregon’s gun rights community, which blamed the government for slow background checks and saw Williamson’s bill as overreach, gave themselves credit for helping run out the clock.
“Make no mistake, you made the difference. It was your efforts that killed this dangerous and evil bill. You have much to be proud of,” Kevin Starrett of the Oregon Firearms Federation wrote on the group’s website March 3. “Elections are coming and your participation is critical. You have seen once again that your voice matters. Make sure your vote matters.”
Starrett didn’t return a message seeking comment this week.
In comments at the end of the legislative session, Brown expressed disappointment about HB 4147’s demise. But she left the door open for fresh legislation and executive efforts.
Her public safety advisor, Heidi Moawad, met with the left-leaning Center for American Progress on that subject Thursday. The group also met with Aaron Knott, Rosenblum’s legislative director. The Center for American Progress has worked up a national effort that emphasizes tighter enforcement of current gun laws and better collaboration, on gun tracing and background checks, across state lines.
“We’re in listening mode right now,” said Brown’s spokeswoman, Kristen Grainger. “But there’s more consulting to do.”
Burdick said she first considered her restraining order bill in 2015, soon after California passed its version in the wake of a mass shooting near the University of California-Santa Barbara. Instead, lawmakers decided to try for expanded background checks.
Details about an Oregon version remain unclear — although a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans said “there was no political palate” for past incarnations of the idea.
California’s program lets police or relatives obtain restraining orders, for up to a year, that prevent people in crisis from purchasing or possessing guns. Emergency orders, which last three weeks, must be reviewed by a court.
Voters in Washington state could see a similar program on the ballot this fall. Other states have also introduced restraining order legislation.
“This is not a partisan issue outside the Legislature,” said Burdick, who noted widespread public support for simple gun restrictions.
Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said that’s true. It’s just that “it’s not very deep.”
“There is a very vocal, but relatively small, group on either side, screaming to be heard and influencing the legislation,” Moore said. “Generally, if we are closer in time to a massacre, the better chances of gun limitation legislation. The farther away we get, the more the gun rights people win out.”
As for any looming political shifts, he cautioned against hand-wringing, or exuberance: “Not that many people will change their electoral support for candidates over gun issues.”
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