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Law and Justice

Roseburg Locals In Uphill Push For Gun Safety Laws

Roseburg, Oregon, site of the recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, is a rural, conservative timber town in which firearms are a traditional part of the culture and gun rights are cherished.

In the wake of the shooting, calls for new gun laws were vigorously rejected by public officials and many residents. But some long-time members of the community feel there should be more emphasis on gun safety. 

After a mass shooting, calls for stronger gun control laws inevitably follow. In Roseburg, those calls didn’t get much traction. When President Obama visited to talk with the victims’ families, about 200 protesters turned out to wave American flags and signs saying, “Go Home.” Jeremy Smith, an Umpqua Community College student, was among them.

Jeremy Smith: “We didn’t have a body count yet and he’s on live TV talking about gun control. He’s not here. This is our tragedy. This is our community. Get the hell out. We don’t want you here.”

The owner of one of the gun shops in Roseburg told Oregon Public Broadcasting that, thanks to the president’s remarks, gun sales had gone through the roof.

When Oregon lawmakers were considering a bill earlier this year to expand background checks on gun buyers, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, who’s currently investigating the UCC shooting, testified against it.

John Hanlin: “This law is not going to protect citizens of Oregon in that it is going to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. It will not do that. We have laws that prohibit the possession of other things, like methamphetamine, and it doesn’t stop it.”

The Douglas County Commissioners issued a resolution opposing that bill, as well. Nonetheless, it eventually passed, giving Oregon one of the strongest background check laws in the country.

This is all to say that many folks in Roseburg are fond of their firearms and passionately resist attempts to limit their gun rights. But that’s not a sentiment shared by everyone.

Larry Hall: “I’m frightened. I am very frightened.”

Larry Hall is a third-generation Oregonian and a retired pediatrician who’s lived in Roseburg for 45 years. He says he was taken aback by the vehement reaction of many of his neighbors after the shooting.

Larry Hall: “There was such a strong pro-gun response to this. First thing it says in the paper, following this horrible thing, was that people were buying more guns. That bothered me a lot.”

Hall says he’s not anti-gun. He did some deer hunting as a teen and even took his own children out to shoot when they were old enough. But he says, there’s been a cultural shift in recent years, where a kind of militant Second Amendment absolutism has taken hold. 

He says he was stunned some years ago when he tried to recruit the National Rifle Association in Oregon to support what he considered a commonsense proposal for trigger locks and other household gun safety measures to protect children.

Larry Hall: “And it wasn’t against anybody. It was just for making homes safer, because kids find them, they play with them, they shoot them. And  we’ve had those injuries and accidents here, we’ve had deaths here.”

Hall says the gun group turned him down cold. The bill narrowly failed.

Sharon Rice, a retired nursing teacher and board member at UCC, also sees a more strident tone characterizing the gun debate. She points to the fury over the President’s visit.

Sharon Rice: “The response from the gun owners, to me, has been over the top.”

Rice worries about what she sees as a growing tendency for people to treat those who disagree with them as enemies.

Sharon Rice: “And I think that it’s going to be going down to the point that if you have a disagreement, instead of trying to work things out, you’re going to get your gun and either threaten and intimidate or shoot them.”

Sarah Byers is a hunter and says her husband owns “quite a few” guns. She’s also a Democratic Party activist who’s lived in Roseburg for more than 20 years. She says she hears talk from other longtime residents concerned about increasingly aggressive gun rights rhetoric.

Sarah Byers: “I’ve talked with people who say they’re considering moving because this is not the place they moved to twenty-some-odd years ago or whatever.”

That said, Byers, Rice and Dr. Hall all say they don’t feel personally threatened because of their gun safety advocacy. And Dr. Hall says, despite the difficulty of having a calm discussion of this issue in Roseburg right now, he holds out hope that will change.