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Oregon’s two main gun bills could be combined, weakened in new proposal

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has introduced amendment that would narrow, and merge, the two central gun-control bills to emerge this session.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has introduced amendment that would narrow, and merge, the two central gun-control bills to emerge this session.

Oregon lawmakers are considering scaling back and combining the two central gun control proposals to emerge this session.

Under an amendment taken up by the House Rules Committee on Wednesday, a bill to ban guns in state buildings and allow local governments to pass their own bans would be curbed significantly.

The amended proposal to Senate Bill 554 — submitted by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, whose chamber has already approved the changes — would limit a new ban to the state Capitol, and only allow K-12 schools, community colleges and universities to enact bans. Local governments like counties and cities would not have that ability.

The new proposal would also ensure that anyone violating those bans would face a class A misdemeanor if they have a concealed handgun license, a lesser crime than the class C felony in the original bill.

Courtney’s amendment would also incorporate the session’s other major gun proposal, House Bill 2510, into SB 554, ensuring that the concepts’ success or failure this year are tied to one another — and that fewer potentially hours-long debates are required to pass both.

HB 2510, known as the “safe-storage bill,” would require Oregonians to lock their guns when not in use. The bill would create penalties if guns are not stowed properly, require owners to report stolen guns and help facilitate lawsuits against owners whose improperly stored firearms are stolen and used to cause injuries or property damage. The new amendments, however, alter the liability standard for such lawsuits, requiring plaintiffs to demonstrate more elements in order to prevail over gun owners.

The changes reflect the strong headwinds gun control bills face in Oregon, despite the fact that Democrats have a supermajority in both legislative chambers. The safe-storage proposal has been introduced each year since 2019, but has been defeated twice amid walkouts by Republican lawmakers.

Republicans still strenuously oppose the proposals, with some openly advocating for walking away from this session last month in order to block SB 554 from passing the Senate in its original form. Republican senators who showed up to oppose the bill, thereby allowing Democrats to hold a vote, have been the target of threats and political backlash. With no guarantee the GOP won’t walk away from the Capitol as the legislative session draws closer to an end, some lawmakers want to pass the gun bills as soon as possible.

HB 2510 had been scheduled for a vote in the House this week, but was pushed back until next Monday. It now appears the bill will be scrapped in favor of an amended SB 554.

But the new tweaks — negotiated over the weekend — are giving pause to some Democrats.

State Sens. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, and Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, were both key supporters of SB 554 as it passed the Senate. Both said they were comfortable with including safe-storage provisions in the measure, meaning it would have to head back to the Senate for another vote. But they also took issue with the weakened provisions negotiated by Courtney.

In particular, Burdick and Prozanski said that a gun ban should apply to all state buildings, not just the state Capitol. And they said that public schools, colleges and universities should be allowed to create bans on school grounds, not just inside school buildings. Both cited the possibility of violence erupting at sporting events.

“I’ve been in this process a long time, and I understand the necessity for compromise,” Burdick testified. But she added that the proposed compromise “goes way too far in terms of weakening the bill.”

Guns are already prohibited in most public buildings in Oregon, but an exception exists for people who hold concealed handgun licenses, or CHLs. It’s those permit holders that SB 554 would impact.

Proposed changes to the safe-storage bill met approval from state Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-West Linn, a chief sponsor.

“The goal of this safe storage firearm bill is to change the behavior of the portion of gun owners whose careless actions lead to deaths and injury of others,” Prusak said. The new negligence standard being proposed, she said, “is strong enough to cause gun owners who do not practice safe storage to begin securing their firearms.”

Republicans, meanwhile, continued to pan the narrowed proposals. State Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, voiced worry that her constituents would not be able to defend themselves from intruders if they were forced to hurriedly unlock their guns.

“To me this bill would harm more individuals than it will help,” said Morgan, who added that her rural constituents “know that they need to be able to protect themselves and not rely on law enforcement” that can’t arrive in time.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said she felt better in the state Capitol knowing that some of her colleagues keep concealed weapons.

“Most of the time there are people there who don’t always wish us well,” Wallan said. “Knowing that my colleagues had weapons there always made me feel more secure, not less secure.”

The debate comes as opponents to new gun proposals have carried out threatening and sometimes noxious acts in order to influence lawmakers. State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and other Republicans have described getting death threats after refusing to walk out over SB 554. They have forwarded those threats to the state police.

Meanwhile, earlier this week anti-Semitic flyers targeting Prusak were taped up in Clackamas County. The flyers had a link to a website for the group Gun Owners of America, according to a photo supplied by House Democrats, and they included a depiction of Prusak wearing a Star of David.

In a statement Wednesday, Prusak said she was in touch with law enforcement.

“Like so many people who experience intimidation and hate, I will not back down on either my determination to call out these acts or my efforts to work towards policies that keep us all safe,” Prusak said. “I am a victim of gun violence. I know the trauma victims of gun violence face and I will not be intimidated from passing legislation on gun safety.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting