A gun-control bill passed in November is on hold pending litigation in Harney County. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Supporters of a gun safety ballot initiative say they have gathered more than enough signatures to guarantee a statewide vote on a law that would require licenses for all gun owners.
Hundreds of volunteers for Initiative Petition 17 will continue collecting petition signatures across Oregon until Tuesday night, then deliver them to the Secretary of State’s Elections Division on Friday. As of Monday afternoon, organizers estimate that they’ve collected between 135,000 and 140,000 signatures – well above the 112,000 needed to make the ballot and ensure a comfortable buffer in case some aren’t valid.
Mark Knutson, a Lutheran pastor in Portland and one of the chief petitioners, told the Capital Chronicle that the campaign started off slow because an increase in Covid cases and a rainy spring made it hard to collect signatures. But mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, in May spurred hundreds of volunteers to pick up clipboards and set up outside libraries and grocery stores.
“A lot of people who were holding back because of Covid said, ‘Now I’ve got to get out there. I’ve got to get out there and do something.’” Knutson said. “And this was one thing people could do right here in Oregon. We’ve had over 1,100 new volunteers since those two tragedies.”
Those volunteers are finishing their work in the aftermath of another tragedy. On Monday, a gunman killed seven people and injured at least two dozen at a Fourth of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park.
The initiative would tighten Oregon’s gun laws, which allow gun ownership at 18 and requires criminal background checks before gun purchases, though a loophole in federal law allows firearms dealers to sell guns without a background check if it takes longer than three days to complete. The man who killed nine people in a racially-motivated shooting at a South Carolina church in 2015 acquired his gun that way.
If the measure were enacted, everyone would have to complete a background check, no matter how long it takes, and pass firearm safety training to obtain a permit before buying a gun. It would not apply to current firearm owners unless they purchase additional weapons after the law took effect.
The measure would also prohibit the sale of ammunition magazines that can contain more than 10 rounds, though people who already own large magazines could continue to use them on their property, while hunting or at shooting ranges.
The initiative would not ban assault-style weapons, which have been used in many mass shootings, though petitioners plan to work with legislators to pass such a ban in 2023. They initially planned to put that ban on the November ballot but decided it worked better to focus all their efforts on one initiative, Knutson said.
Joe Paterno, a retired physical therapist from Portland who serves as the initiative’s co-field director, told the Capital Chronicle the petition seems to resonate with voters.
“Many of the signers, after we talk to them, they become circulators,” he said. “What does that tell you? They’re listening, they’re understanding the need, and they’re saying ‘How can I help?’”
This year’s initiative is the culmination of years of work for Knutson, Paterno and others. Knutson worked on gun violence issues in the 1980s and ‘90s, and his church – Augustana Lutheran – hosted vigils over the years.
In the summer of 2016, after a gunman killed 50 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Knutson asked a group of 100 elected officials and faith leaders if they’d support banning assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines. Every hand in the room went up, he said.
Less than two years later, after 17 people died in a Valentine’s Day shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, they formed Lift Every Voice Oregon, an interfaith political action committee. They tried putting together a ballot measure in 2018, but they got tangled up in legal battles and ran out of time.
In 2019, they tried going through the Legislature without success – Democratic leaders agreed to table gun safety legislation to entice Senate Republicans to end a walkout that blocked the Legislature from doing any business.
And another attempt in 2020 to make the ballot ended when Covid struck.
Since then, Knutson said, voter appetite to strengthen gun safety laws has grown.
“After yesterday in Highland Park, it’s become one after another after another,” he said. “People who were on the fence are now coming to know we need to do something.”
Lift Every Voice Oregon has raised about $236,000 for the campaign and owes more than $45,000 in outstanding loans and other debts, according to campaign finance records. It’s primarily funded by small donors, and its largest contributions are $10,000 from the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and a combined $20,000 from M. Albin (Al) Jubitz, Jr., a Portland philanthropist.
The only other voter-initiated statewide measure likely to appear on ballots this November is a proposed constitutional amendment that would punish absentee lawmakers by making them ineligible for re-election if they have 10 or more unexcused absences. The Legislature also sent two proposed constitutional amendments to the ballot: one declaring health care a right under the Constitution and one removing language allowing slavery as punishment for a crime.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article referred to one other ballot measure, a proposed constitutional amendment to punish absentee lawmakers. It has been updated to include two other measures referred by lawmakers.
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