Oregon could show how to navigate the gun safety issue with centrist approach
Voters could be deciding in November on two ballot measures that tighten control over guns.
Recent mass shootings across the U.S. are prompting renewed pushes for gun safety measures. (Getty Images)
Oregon may see in the coming months an extended dustup over curbing gun violence in the state, first in this fall’s general election when two gun initiatives may appear on the ballot, and then at the Oregon Legislature responding to the results.
And don’t be surprised if Nicholas Kristoff, whose effort to run for governor was legally rebuffed this year, doesn’t figure in that discussion.
About 40% of Oregon adults live in a household with a firearm, close to the national average. Oregon politically is more amenable to gun regulation than are many of the states to its east, but it isn’t at the top of the list for tough gun laws nationally.
The Giffords Law Center, which tracks gun legislation nationally, gives letter grades to the states and ranks Oregon at B-. It ranks Oregon 35th among the states for the rate of deaths from shootings, and 15th among the states for “gun safety strength.”
Gun critics are organized in the state.
There’s been a degree of compromise here. Oregon’s roots are in rural cultures and resource industries, and guns have had a welcome home in much of the state. (A provision in the state constitution says “The people shall have the right to bear arms for the defence [sic] of themselves, and the State.”) Advocates aren’t just the National Rifle Association; there are groups like Oregon Gun Owners, which reports more than 10,000 members.
Oregon is urban and suburban enough that some gun regulation has passed and been accepted without much difficulty, but public officials have been uneasy about leading the charge in that direction.
So, for example, Oregon has had since 2015 a law in force “requiring private or unlicensed firearm sellers to conduct background checks on private or unlicensed purchasers. Oregon law also requires a prospective purchaser to undergo a background check before buying a gun at a gun show.” Oregonians can ask a court to temporarily block a person’s access to firearms, with a showing of necessity.
No gun limit
But the state doesn’t limit sales of military-type weapons like an AR-15, or the number of rounds in a magazine (other than for hunting), doesn’t require a gap of time between buying and taking possession of a gun, or require safety standards for the weapon or safety training.
Concealed carry permits generally are allowed unless local law enforcement has a reason to think that person will constitute a danger to others. A lack of gun buyback efforts is considered a weak spot.
This suggests a pro-regulation but centrist balance for Oregon. But the ongoing string of mass shootings, most recently at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, may return the issue to a front burner. In Oregon, it may revive memories of incidents in places like Clackamas and Roseburg.
All this could light a fire under two proposed ballot initiatives, numbered 17 and 18, which already have made progress in the last year. Both have obtained enough petition signatures to obtain a ballot title, which is due for publication by June 24.
Number 17, called the Reduction of Gun Violence Act, would require buyers of guns to obtain a legal permit, and law enforcement would create a state database around those filings. It also would ban magazines that include more than 10 rounds.
Number 18, the Reduction of Harm from Weapons Act, would aim to ban “manufacturing/ possessing/ transferring many semiautomatic firearms; criminal penalties; limited exception if existing firearms registered.” It would ban the manufacture of semi-automatics, and require registration by people who already own them.
The advocates have rationales built into the preambles of the initiatives, and critics could (and surely will) point out the limited ability of the measures to actually stop mass shootings. More broadly, they are reactive; they don’t fit into a larger systematic approach to diminishing shootings.
Is there a framework for looking at guns that makes sense of Oregon’s near-centrist kind of approach, and maybe charts a direction for future action?
Kristof, a former journalist and Yamhill farmer, has suggested one. In 2017 when he was a columnist for the New York Times, he wrote about gun violence, “Gun enthusiasts often protest: Cars kill about as many people as guns, and we don’t ban them! No, but automobiles are actually a model for the public health approach I’m suggesting.”
Explaining that: “We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them – and limit access to them – so as to reduce the death toll they cause. This has been spectacularly successful, reducing the death rate per 100 million miles driven to less than one-seventh of what it was in 1946.”
Seen through the lens of regulating guns rather than banning them, the Oregon Legislature might have a useful frame of reference to “do something” about gun-related violence whether or not the initiatives pass. At least a common frame of reference, like the one Kristof suggests, would help keep the discussion from devolving into a war against the evil opposition.
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