From left, Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek, gun violence survivor Jennifer Langston, student Ella Dreke and volunteer Hilary Uhlig participate in a gun safety forum at Portland’s Polaris Hall. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
PORTLAND – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek has pushed for a debate solely on gun laws since a gunman murdered 19 young children in Texas this spring.
By Wednesday, in the wake of a grocery store shooting in one of Oregon’s largest cities, Kotek had given up on getting her two rivals in the governor’s race to debate gun policy. Instead, she joined gun control advocates, including the leader of a national gun safety group, at a performance space in north Portland to talk about gun control on her own.
Wednesday’s event comes as each candidate for governor ramps up campaigning and tries to make her case to voters. Christine Drazan, the Republican nominee, brought Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to Portland on Tuesday to help make her case for a conservative approach to law enforcement and homelessness, and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson is barnstorming the state meeting with voters at county fairs.
Gun policy is one area where Kotek can draw a clear distinction between herself and Johnson, a gun owner who served as a Democrat in the state Legislature for 20 years before leaving the party to run for governor. After multiple mass shootings, including one less than 170 miles from the Portland forum, Kotek’s counting on voters’ frustration with gun violence to help push her past her opponents.
“Gun violence is becoming the defining issue in the Oregon governors’ race,” said Shannon Watts, founder of gun safety advocacy group Moms Demand Action.
Voters have repeatedly signaled in surveys that gun policy is an important issue, though not the most important. An August survey from Portland-based DHM Research found that almost 80% of respondents said it was a “very important” issue, though only 7% said a candidate’s stance on gun laws would be the most important issue in deciding who to vote for.
A shooting at a Safeway in Bend late last month added momentum to conversations about gun safety, Kotek told the Capital Chronicle after the forum. A 20-year-old man sprayed bullets in the grocery store in east Bend on Aug. 28, killing 84-year-old shopper Glenn Bennett and 66-year-old employee Donald Surrett Jr. The shooter killed himself.
Kotek said she received an email from one parent whose son was in the Safeway, not far from the shooter, and others from concerned residents.
“It just really enforces that we need to do more,” Kotek said. “Eighteen to 21-year-olds being able to purchase that type of gun, that’s got to be the next step.”
Johnson also recently called for raising the age to buy some semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21.
“I will not disarm law-abiding citizens but will do more to keep guns away from criminals, crazies and kids,” Johnson said in a recent email to supporters. Johnson owns a submachine gun, according to reports.
Kotek said she doubted Johnson would follow through on gun control promises.
“It’s political convenience,” Kotek said. “Her voting record is very clear. I’m sorry, I would not trust her to actually follow through on that.”
Both Johnson and Drazan have received “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association, and both voted against gun control measures during their years in the Legislature. Johnson, who spent 20 years in the Legislature, voted against laws that expanded background checks and prevented people convicted of domestic abuse from obtaining guns. Drazan, the House Republican leader from 2019 to 2021, voted against legislation requiring safe gun storage.
Drazan has maintained that Oregon doesn’t need stricter gun laws. She has pledged to veto additional regulations, though she hasn’t described any existing laws she would seek to repeal.
“Oregon’s current laws on the books in this particular category are doing a good job of safeguarding safety in our state right now,” she said during a July debate.
A measure on the November ballot would require gun purchasers to complete safety training and pass a background check before purchasing a gun. Background checks are required already, but a federal loophole allows people to purchase guns without completing the check if it takes longer than three days to get results back.
The ballot measure also would ban ammunition magazines that contain more than 10 rounds, though that restriction doesn’t apply to police or law enforcement. Gun owners who already have large magazines could continue to use them at shooting ranges or on their own property.
Kotek supports that measure. The faith-based group behind it also plans to work with legislators next spring to ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons – something Kotek said she doesn’t think can be done at the state level. Instead, she said, she would lobby Congress.
“I’m very pragmatic in that I believe that that is something that the federal government has to do,” she said. “We did have bans, and the challenge is if one state bans it, the ability to go across the border is too simple.”
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