Oregon’s gun safety initiative will challenge the state’s Democratic leadership

The Legislature’s leadership will have to decide whether to modify the measure in ways that can help steer it through a shifting legal minefield

November 16, 2022 5:30 am

Measure 114 will tighten Oregon’s gun control laws. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It will now be up to the Democratic leadership in Salem to determine the fate of Oregon’s gun safety initiative, Measure 114 – a measure that was strongly supported by voters in Democratic precincts and just as strongly rejected by voters in the rest of the state.

Measure 114 was never a major issue for Oregon Democrats on the campaign trail. But its passage creates a daunting test for Governor-elect Tina Kotek and her party’s majorities in the Legislature to follow through on their promise to bring collaboration and competence to their management of state government. 

To begin with, Kotek will have little time to get the Oregon State Police to respond to the measure’s requirements for implementing its gun-purchase permit system and to get local law enforcement in sync with enforcing its ban on large capacity magazines. Meanwhile, the Legislature’s leadership will have to decide whether to modify the measure in ways that can help steer it through a shifting legal minefield. And both will have to work across as deep an urban-rural political divide as any we’ve seen in Oregon.

How deep is that divide? Voters in the seven, mostly urban, counties that voted for the measure did so by a nearly 2-1 margin. Voters in the 29, mostly rural, counties were equally emphatic, rejecting the measure by a nearly identical ratio.

Kotek was the only gubernatorial candidate to support Measure 114. But her state party never endorsed it, and Democratic candidates in marginal districts downplayed it. Still, it was activists in Democratic strongholds who qualified the measure for the ballot, and voters in Kotek counties put it over the top. So, like it or not, it’s a must-do for the Democratic leadership now and, as the party in power, it’s their responsibility to take the lead on making it work.  

Ballot measures are not, in the language of lawyers, “self-executing.” They rely on governors and legislatures to put their dictates into practice, as Gov. Kate Brown learned the hard way with the botched rollout of Measure 110 (the drug treatment and decriminalization initiative). Those failures are rarely blamed on a measure’s sponsors or supporters, but on the elected officials who fumble the handoff from the voters. 

And Measure 114 is a heavy handoff. There’s little of the infrastructure in place that will be needed to provide the training required to purchase a firearm. And it’s unlikely that sheriffs and police chiefs in many rural counties will help to expedite its implementation or enforcement. 

Plus, there are sure to be legal challenges filed to delay or overturn the measure, taking advantage of the more expansive interpretations of the Second Amendment adopted earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

So what’s the best path forward? 

Step one is to buy time. 

Measure 114 grants broad rulemaking authority to the state police, which could issue an emergency rule to hold it in abeyance. Doing so would give time for the legislature to address its legal vulnerabilities and for law enforcement agencies to put the necessary systems in place. This is where the governor can help to facilitate the handoff. 

Next, the Legislature will have to get to work on it. 

Over the past several decades, lawmakers have learned not to treat winning ballot measures as sacred texts. Those that are statutory, like Measure 114, can be modified, sometimes quite substantially, by legislatures determined to make them work as best they can. 

Lawmakers can also decide to steer clear of pockets of opposition by carving out exceptions for dissenting counties, as was done with the 2014 measure that legalized marijuana. 

Whether any of these approaches can work with an issue like gun control is another question. And bipartisan engagement will be unlikely, without a signal from the Democratic leadership that they are willing to entertain modifications. 

Of course, both parties could decide to just fight it out in the courts. But, without a viable implementation plan, Measure 114 will remain in the short term unenforceable and in the long term indefensible. 

It will be up to the new Democratic administration, in the governor’s office and the Legislature, to decide whether to give life to the measure or consign it to death by neglect. 

This is the Democrats’ challenge now – to show compromises can be made, common ground can be found and government agencies can respond responsibly to the will of the voters. That doesn’t mean that Measure 114 can survive as written. But achieving its goals – to keep guns out of dangerous hands and limit their killing power – will be a worthy test of the commitment to collaboration and competence that a new administration promised to bring to Salem.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.