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New Oregon Group Plans More Money, Resources For Gun Control Debate

Dave Blanchard

Two Oregon groups failed earlier this year to land gun safety measures on November’s ballot. Now, one of them has a new plan.

In what’s being pitched as a game-changing force, a proposed nonprofit calling itself State of Safety said it's ready to lead conversations about gun safety in Oregon — and how the state might prevent gun deaths going forward.

"Everyone has the right to be safe from gun violence,” said Henry Wessinger, the group’s executive director. “There is a series of steps that can be worked on in the same ways we worked on automobile safety that did not diminish anyone’s right to drive a car, but over time made driving much, much safer.”

Wessinger and his backers talk of State of Safety as a missing voice in Oregon’s often fractious debate over firearms. While Ceasefire Oregon and others are active locally in pushing for tighter gun laws, Wessinger said their resources have been outmatched by gun rights groups on the other side of the debate. He’s hoping to change that.

“There was a need to have an Oregon-based organization that had stronger financial capability and that was going to be focused on not just whether or not the next ballot measure would occur or the next law was passed, but rather was looking longer term,” Wessinger said Wednesday.

But the “stronger financial capability” hasn’t landed yet. Wessinger said he’s confident the group will be awarded a grant from a private charity to fund startup expenses, but wouldn’t disclose which charity.

Wessinger, whose great-great-grandfather was pioneering Oregon brewer Henry Weinhard, said his long ties to Oregon will help the group raise funds.

The group is not disclosing who will sit on its board of directors.

State of Safety has roots in Initiative Petition 44, the scuttled push to land a measure on the November ballot that would have required guns to be stored with trigger locks or other safety mechanisms when not in use. Wessinger served as a chief petitioner for that effort, along with Paul Kemp and Jenna Yuille, who lost loved ones in a 2012 mass shooting at Portland’s Clackamas Town Center.

IP 44 was filed in the aftermath of a February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. But the timing left little opportunity to collect the signatures needed to land it on the ballot. Supporters wound up dropping the effortin June, but promised to keep pushing it.

Another gun control measure, Initiative Petition 43, would have severely curtailed possession of military-style semi-automatic weapons in Oregon. It was also filed after the Parkland shooting and had to be abandoned for lack of time to gather signatures. The clergy-backed group behind the petition has pledged to try again.

While it hasn’t yet been granted tax-exempt status from the federal government, State of Safety plans to file as a 501(c)(3) organization. That means it would be limited in how much it could engage in political advocacy.

Instead, the group is planning to launch educational campaigns about Oregon’s existing gun laws, partner with national organizations and carry out research about Oregonians’ opinions on guns.

Wessinger said the first order of business is to release polling about how parents and teachers feel about school safety and gun violence.

“One of the things that I believe is true is that the public is ahead of the political process,” Wessinger said. “To the extent that we see a fairly high level of concern parents and teachers about gun safety in schools, that helps to offset some the messaging from people who say we already have enough laws in place.” 

The group is also planning to screen "101 Seconds," a documentary about the Clackamas Town Center shooting, around the state.

That’s not to say State of Safety won’t be more politically active in the future. Wessinger acknowledges the group may well branch out with a 501(c)(4) arm. Sometimes known as “dark money” groups, such organizations don’t need to reveal the sources of their funding and can donate to political campaigns.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.