The Oregon Court of Appeals set a national precedent Wednesday as it voided a controversial gun rights ordinance that claimed state and federal firearms regulations didn’t apply in Columbia County.
The ruling strikes down the “Second Amendment Sanctuary” ordinance narrowly approved in 2020 by voters in the 50,000-person county just north of Portland.
Gun safety advocates say it is the first such ruling passed at the appellate level. And while the decision has sway only within state lines, the ruling could have major ramifications for the more than 1,900 counties nationwide that have declared themselves gun sanctuaries.
“Today’s opinion by the Court of Appeals makes it clear that common sense requirements like safe storage and background checks apply throughout Oregon,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who joined the case in opposition to Columbia County’s ordinance. “Hopefully, other counties with similar measures on the books will see the writing on the wall.”
Rosenblum previously sued Harney and Yamhill counties, two of the 16 counties in Oregon that have passed some sort of pro-Second Amendment ordinance.
Harney County then rescinded its ordinance in 2022, while Yamhill County Circuit Judge Ladd Wiles declared the sanctuary ordinance illegal. Yamhill County dropped its own appeal of their case in January.
Three appellate judges made the ruling in the Columbia County case, including Presiding Judge Douglas Tookey, who cited a state law vesting the authority to regulate the sale and use of guns in Oregon solely with the Legislature.
“If allowed to stand, (the ordinance) would, effectively, create a ‘patchwork quilt’ of firearms laws in Oregon,” Tookey wrote. “It would have the potential to lead to uncertainty for firearms owners concerning the legality of their conduct as they travel from county to county.”
Columbia County voters first passed a citizens initiative in 2018 banning the use of county money to enforce laws restricting assault-style rifles and ammunition capacity, among other limits.
Two years later, county residents approved another ordinance that declared all rules governing the use of guns “a violation of the Second Amendment.” It said the local sheriff must determine which gun laws were enforceable and allowed fines of up to $4,000 for those who violated the new provisions. It passed by a margin of roughly 500 votes.
County commissioners combined the two ordinances and asked the Circuit Court to rule on its legality, saying doing so would offer clarity and protect the county if gun control groups sued.
But Judge Ted Grove found no need for a judicial review in 2021, saying the new ordinance hadn’t been challenged and that the commission was trying to invalidate its own ordinance.
The case was closely watched on appeal, with both the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety and Rosenblum joining the case and seeking to overturn the ordinance.
The gun rights organization Gun Owners of America also intervened and argued state law prohibited Grove from issuing an advisory opinion, while the county commission hoped the appeals court would send the case back to Grove to decide but took no position on whether the ordinance itself was lawful.
In a phone interview, County Chair Casey Garrett said he wasn’t surprised the Appeals Court rejected the ordinance.
“Our voters showed the desire to pass an ordinance to help better protect our Second Amendment rights. I appreciate that,” he said. “But the reality is, counties don’t necessarily get to make those decisions, whether I wish they could or not.”
Garrett said he believed the sanctuary ordinance had been in effect while the case was pending, adding that he would defer the decision to appeal again to the gun rights group who supported the original petition.
Everytown praised the ruling, saying it struck a blow against the so-called “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which claims sheriffs can preempt all other law enforcement officials on any matter.
“Local officials, whether it’s a county commission or county sheriff, don’t have the authority in our legal system to decide for themselves that a law is not constitutional,” said Eric Tirschwell, director of the legal arm of the national Everytown group. “That’s just not how the American legal system works.”
In a passionate concurrence, Appeals Judge James Egan noted attorneys for the gun rights group that joined the suit had suggested the Columbia County ordinance was necessary to prevent the United Nations from promulgating international gun laws.
Egan dismissed the claim as an “entirely fictitious problem” and said it was a white supremacist dog whistle intended to invoke conspiracy theories of global cabals.
“Individual members of the court must call out illegitimate quasi-legal arguments and theories for what they are … antisemitic and racist tropes,” he wrote.
— Zane Sparling
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