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Oregon gun access measure narrowly passes, bringing joy and sadness

Printed and handmade signs reading "Take Action Against Gun Violence" and "If you really care about gun violence sign here" are tapped to a wall and chairs in a hallway.
Lillian Mongeau Hughes
/
OPB
Signs taped to chairs for volunteer signature gatherers hoping to get a measure to tighten Oregon's gun laws line the hallway in the basement of the Augustana Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland in June 2022. What started as a tiny, grassroots effort headquartered in this church basement, became a national campaign to make the biggest gun law change on the ballot in the United States.

Juniper Rook, 17, is too young to vote. But that didn’t keep her from constantly refreshing the vote totals for Measure 114, which she campaigned for in the hopes that it would keep her and her classmates safe. When the lead of the Yes on Measure 114 campaign in Bend texted her to say it passed, she cried.

“It’s just so surreal to know that Oregon is one of the states that’s taking a first big step to creating a safer place for all people,” Rook said.

The high school student, who lives in Redmond, said she and many of her friends can feel anxious about going to school because shootings have become so common. She said she started advocating for stricter gun laws when 17 students were killed at Stoneman Douglas High school in Florida. She was 12.

“I feel like even adults who aren’t parents kind of have this responsibility to keep kids my age safe,” she said. “And it really was not happening up until now. It was super disappointing.”

This week though, she’s proud of the grown-ups.

Amazement, sadness, fear, relief, a renewed faith in humanity and a dark feeling that things will keep getting worse – all of these reactions swept the state as it became clear this week that Measure 114 would pass by about two percentage points.

Thirty days after the vote is certified, the new laws requiring a permit to purchase a firearm and banning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition will go into effect. The change will rocket Oregon from the middle of the pack to among the 10 states with the tightest gun regulations in the country. And for many on both sides, the coming changes feel deeply personal in a way that will change their daily life.

Paul Donheffner, the legislative committee chairman with the Oregon Hunters Association who had advocated against Measure 114, was disappointed. What, he wondered, would his various hunting associations use for their fundraising raffles if they couldn’t give rifles to people who may not have up-to-date purchase permits?

“It had a very appealing title, ‘reduction of gun violence act,’” he said. “If that’s all you read before you voted, then you’d say yes. I mean, who’s for gun violence? Nobody.”

Donheffner, who lives in Marion County, takes gun safety seriously, but he thinks creating a permit system that requires a course in gun safety will be expensive and unwieldy. And he doesn’t think it will do anything to cut down on the increased gun violence in Portland or to reduce mass shootings.

“It is going to put a lot of honest citizens through the wringer,” he said. “The people that are committing gun violence aren’t going to get a [permit to purchase], you’re not going to get a background check, you’re not going to go through all this rigamarole.”

As might be expected, the measure passed overwhelmingly in Multnomah County, with 74% of the vote as of Thursday evening. It was much closer in Deschutes County, a mostly rural region anchored by Bend. Voters there were nearly 50-50 for and against. With just over 100,000 votes cast, the measure was defeated by about 1,000 votes.

In rural, mountainous Wallowa County, the numbers were almost exactly reversed from Multnomah, with 73% of voters saying no thank you to tighter gun laws. More people there voted against stricter gun laws than voted for Republican candidate for governor Christine Drazan. At the same time, the new rules were more popular to Wallowans than Democratic Gov.-elect Tina Kotek, who pulled about 100 fewer votes than Measure 114 did in the Eastern Oregon county.

Overall, the measure would have lost in 29 of Oregon’s 36 counties. But the places where it won hold the bulk of the state’s population.

Regardless of how individual Oregonians voted, the rules laid out in Measure 114 will soon be law for all residents. But exactly what happens next is slightly unclear. A spokesperson for the Oregon State Police, the agency tasked with creating the permit to purchase system and overseeing the new background checks, said they would not be able to provide specific information about the timeline for the “rulemaking” process they will go through to work out the kinks until the election is certified by the Secretary of State.

Lack of guidance from the state law enforcement agency hasn’t prevented some county sheriffs, like Michelle Duncan in Linn County and Brad Lohrey in Sherman County, from saying they won’t enforce the ban on high capacity magazines. It’s unclear exactly what that means, since sheriffs aren’t legally allowed to contravene state law.

Some in the leftist community are less worried about sheriffs not enforcing the law than about them having too much power over who gets a permit. And that’s just one detail of the law that has gun owners worried.

For example, anyone who currently owns larger capacity magazines or guns that carry more bullets are allowed to keep them under the new rules, but many worry they will have a hard time proving a purchase date.

“It is impossible to prove when you actually acquired [a magazine],” said Kevin Starrett, the leader of the No on Measure 114 campaign in an August interview. “The burden of proof is on you, the defendant. It’s impossible to prove when you bought a magazine, because they have no identifying marks on them.”

Others say it will be nearly impossible to meet demand for the newly required safety courses, which require live-fire training. They worry that the financial burden on local law enforcement will be too high. They worry the state may ban all gun purchases while they figure out a new system.

But for people who voted for the measure, it’s an unalloyed good.

“I have three kids in school — the impact of the countless ‘lockdowns’ both real and practice ones has had lasting mental impact on them,” wrote Matt Coleman, who works in tech sales and lives in Lake Oswego. “We always wonder ‘is today the day’ where we get the call that there is a shooting in school.”

For Coleman, the measure seems like a common sense way to regulate a deadly weapon.

“It doesn’t take any guns away, it simply adds some measure of ensuring that most people follow a process,” he wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “Just like people steal cars, criminals will steal guns too. I just want to make it harder for them.”

Michael Fuller, a Portland civil rights lawyer, had a different reason for voting yes: “My preferred concealed carry weapon does not have more than 10 rounds in its magazine anyway,” he wrote in a direct message on Twitter, “so I figured that passing 114 would make it less likely I would be outgunned if I were in a gunfight with an active shooter.”

Fuller was among a small but vocal group of gun owners who came out in support of the measure, saying in different ways that they were willing to put up with additional hassles to purchase their guns if it meant saving lives.

While nothing is guaranteed, the available research indicates the new laws likely will save lives. Magazine bans have been found to reduce the rate of fatal mass shootings, said Andrew Morral, the head of RAND’s National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research. And while it’s difficult to isolate the effect of a single law, states with tighter gun regulations, including permits to purchase firearms, have lower gun homicide and suicide rates, Morral said in an October interview. Waiting periods to buy a gun, which will be an effective result of Oregon’s new law, are one of the laws clearly shown to reduce firearm deaths.

The campaign to pass the measure went from a tiny effort based out of a Portland church basement this spring to a professionally staffed and nationally funded effort.

In the days and weeks after the May shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, a surge of people decided it was time to change Oregon’s gun laws and headed out with clipboards to gather the more than 150,000 signatures needed to put the measure before voters.

“We picked up 1,000 volunteers in 10 days,” said Mark Knutson, the pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland and the chair of Lift Every Voice Oregon, a tiny nonprofit created to get this measure on the ballot. “And then more came, and then more came.”

And though it was a scramble to transition from that scrappy start to a polished messaging apparatus, it could be a model other states decide to follow, said Sean Holihan, the state legislative director for Giffords Law Center, which advocates for stricter gun laws and lent its expertise and fundraising might to the Yes on Measure 114 campaign.

“For the most part, when we deal with ballot initiatives, they’re so unwieldy, so costly, that we really do rather work for the legislature,” Holihan said. “But voters brought [Measure 114] to the ballot.”

Holihan said he saw examples of voters caring more about stopping gun violence than about party lines this election, even in states like Oregon and Michigan where gun rights are a dearly held value. “I think this does give us some hope,” he said. “Gun violence was top of mind for voters across the state.”

He hopes the results are a message to Republican leaders that they should think twice about what legislation they’re willing to get behind.

Oregon political consultant John Horvick, with DHM Research, said the key when crafting a ballot measure is to get as much in there as you can without making it too hard to vote yes. A thin margin of victory, he said, means you didn’t leave anything on the table.

“If you’re an advocate for gun control, you wouldn’t want to pass something with 65%,” he explained, “because maybe there was more control you could get.”

Judging by the final tally, there was probably no stricter measure that could have passed. Just enough people said yes and nearly as many said no.

But while opinions on guns in Oregon are still sharply split, often on regional lines, the grassroots energy came from all over the state, Pastor Knutson said.

“This is not a victory over anybody,” Knutson said. “We honor those who oppose this – [they’re invited to] work with us to make this one the best, equitable laws for public safety ever.”

And while not in direct response to the liberal pastor from Portland, Donheffner, the hunter from Salem, indicated he was ready for that work.

“The measure has a lot of flaws,” he said. “I know there will be some people that don’t want to fix it, they just want to kill it. And I respect that. But at the same time, if you have to live with it, you might as well try to fix it if it’s possible.”
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lillian Mongeau Hughes
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