Oregon lawmakers pass the state’s first gun-control legislation in years
Years of halting efforts by gun-control advocates paid off Wednesday, as the Oregon Legislature gave final approval to a bill to require gun owners to securely store their weapons when not in use, or face potential consequences.
The “safe-storage” bill — a key policy aim for groups like Moms Demand Action and State of Safety since 2018 — passed the state Senate on a vote of 17-7 after a brief debate. It passed the House of Representatives last week on a similarly fraught vote.
If signed by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon will join 11 other states with laws requiring locking devices on stored firearms. Oregon’s bill also opens up gun owners to civil litigation if their unsecured weapon is used to inflict injury.
But the bill does far more, too. Democrats last month combined the safe-storage proposal with a bill that will ban guns in the state Capitol and large airport terminals, and allow public school districts, community colleges and universities to pass their own rules outlawing guns on their grounds.
A version of that proposal had already passed the Senate, but then Democrats agreed to combine the two proposals after political wrangling and concerns that keeping them as separate bills could lead to one being left behind. After the omnibus version of Senate Bill 554 passed in the House last week, it needed a “concurrence” vote by the Senate in its updated form.
That process resulted in far fewer parliamentary tactics than Republicans drummed up at the time of the March vote, when a debate lasted hours and GOP members employed motion after motion in order to slow the measure.
On Wednesday, Republicans mounted a brief attempt to push a final vote on SB 554 back to late June. When that failed, only two Republican senators rose to oppose the bill. Just one Democrat spoke in its favor.
“The bill is not about solving gun violence, but a generalized fear of guns at a time when more and more people need to defend themselves,” said state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. “People were not given a fair chance to be heard with public hearings wrought with technical difficulties and scheduled at laser speed.”
Republicans also took issue with the vast changes the bill had seen since they’d last opposed the measure, pointing out Democrats were passing a safe storage policy through the chamber before Senators took the proposal up in a hearing this year.
“This is an example of how ugly this building can get,” said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, the Senate Republican leader. “We were locked out of the process on this bill.”
Gun bills are a perennial source of tension in Salem, but have proved especially tumultuous in 2021. Gun rights groups that normally castigate Democrats changed their tactics this year, instead seeking to apply pressure on Republican leaders in an attempt to force them to walk away from the Capitol to block a vote.
“Some unscrupulous organizations have misled Oregonians into thinking that lobbying any Democrat is a waste of their time — that instead they should push the easy button, to call on me to deny quorum,” House Minority Leader Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said when her chamber took up SB 554 last week. “They were told that instead of voting no, I have an obligation to leave right now before the final gavel drops.”
Similar pressure campaigns occurred in the Senate, where five Republicans refused to attend a floor vote when SB 554 first got a vote in March, and declined once again to show up Wednesday. For both votes, six GOP senators chose to stay to oppose the bill, granting Democrats the quorum needed to hold a vote and pass the measure. Gun rights supporters have launched a recall campaign against Girod, the Senate Republican leader.
Meanwhile, both Republicans and Democrats have reported ugly backlash over their support for — or refusal to block — the gun legislation. State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and other Senate Republicans say they have received death threats for granting Democrats a quorum in March.
“There’s a fringe group out there that is sure not welcome in my office,” said Girod, apparently referencing the Oregon Firearms Federation. “It’s not okay to threaten people’s lives. It’s not okay to threaten their staff. That’s just not an appropriate way to lobby.”
State Rep. Rachel Prusak, the West Linn Democrat who was a chief booster of the safe-storage proposal, was the subject of anti-Semitic flyers spread in her district.
Under SB 554, gun owners are required to store their firearms in a safe or gun room, or to use a trigger lock to ensure a gun can’t be fired when not in use. That requirement doesn’t apply if a gun owner is in “control” of a gun, by either being alone in their home or with other people allowed to use the gun. Failing to secure a firearm would result in a maximum fine of $500. That fine quadruples to $2,000 if a minor accesses an unsecured firearm.
The bill also requires gun owners to report a stolen firearm within 72 hours of noticing it’s gone, in most instances. If an unsecured gun or a gun not reported stolen is used to inflict injury, gun owners are open to civil lawsuits under the bill.
The safe-storage portion of the bill has been called the Cindy Yuille and Steve Forsyth Act, after two victims of a 2012 shooting at Clackamas Town Center that was committed with a stolen AR-15. Proponents say it will not only help prevent similar events, but will guard against instances of children shooting themselves or friends after finding a gun.
“Having standards as to what is safe storage will give everyone clearer understanding of what your obligations are as a gun owner,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, the carrier of the bill and lone Democrat to speak in support. “The vast, vast majority of gun owners in this state are not going to be directly impacted by this because they are already taking those steps.”
Opponents argue the bill will leave gun owners helpless to access their weapons if they’re surprised by intruders in the middle of the night.
The portion of the bill dealing with public buildings changes how state law treats holders of concealed handgun licenses, or CHLs. While it’s already a felony to possess a gun in most public buildings, there’s a statutory exception for CHL holders.
SB 554 changes that, making it a class A misdemeanor for CHL holders to carry a gun in the Capitol or in the terminal of Portland International Airport, with an exception for unloaded guns stowed securely in checked baggage.
Schools, colleges and universities will be able to set similar bans, under the law. That’s a far more narrow step than the version that initially passed the Senate, which allowed all local governments to pass gun bans. That provision was opposed by the Association of Oregon Counties, but strongly supported by at least one member of that group, Multnomah County.
Proponents of the public building ban say that guns have no place in such areas. They conjure images of gun rights advocates toting rifles through the Capitol any time a controversial gun bill is raised in the Legislature, a fairly regular sight lawmakers say chills many people in the building.
Opponents have argued that CHL holders are law-abiding gun owners, and that preventing them from possessing firearms in some places could cause confusion and unwittingly make them criminals. They have also argued that people with concealed handguns can be a first line of defense in mass shootings.
Those arguments held little sway with supermajority Democrats. State Sen. Betsy Johnson, a moderate from Scappoose, was the only Democratic senator to vote against the bill Wednesday.
SB 554 now goes to Brown, whose office declined to guarantee she would sign it on Wednesday.
“Governor Brown believes that every American has the right to be free from gun violence, and she has continually spoken out about the need to pass sensible gun legislation,” spokeswoman Liz Merah wrote in an email. “She also believes that public safety is one of the most important responsibilities of government, and she appreciates the impassioned testimony this bill has received from so many Oregonians. The Governor will review SB 554 when it gets to her desk.”
If Brown does sign the bill, it’s possible voters will have a say in the matter. In closed door wrangling, Democrats agreed to remove an emergency clause from the bill, ensuring that opponents can force an up or down vote on the law in 2022 if they can gather enough signatures to force a referendum.
Despite that possibility, gun control advocates were in a celebratory mood Wednesday.
“After three years of hard work, it is an honor to be part of this moment where we are adopting this common-sense step to save lives and reduce gun violence,” Henry Wessinger, executive director of the group State of Safety, said in a statement. “Safe storage saves lives, helping prevent unintentional shootings and firearm suicides. It will make it harder for potential school shooters to obtain a gun, and it will support responsible gun ownership.”
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