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Oregon legislators move to pass gun restrictions held up in state court

Assault weapons and hand guns for sale.
Seth Perlman
Assault weapons and hand guns for sale.

Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation to enact firearms restrictions originally passed by voters in November.

The draft legislation would require a permit to purchase a firearm and ban magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Those are the same provisions in Ballot Measure 114 which is currently blocked from taking effect by a state judge.

Senate Bill 348 makes some changes to the measure passed by voters. The permit-to-purchase provision would be phased in starting July 1, 2024, with exceptions for certain small-caliber rifles and shotguns. Those exceptions would expire on July 1, 2026. The bill gives law enforcement 60 days to approve or deny a permit, compared to 30 days under Measure 114. Applicants would still be required to take an approved safety course before applying for a permit.

In addition to the permit requirement, the legislation would also close the so-called Charleston Loophole and require a completed background check before the purchase of each firearm. Federal law currently allows a sale to proceed if a background check is not completed in 72 hours.

Once a background check is approved, SB 348 would require an additional 72-hour waiting period before a sale or transfer can be completed.

Only people 21 or older would be eligible for a permit. Senate Judiciary Chair and bill sponsor Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said people between 18 and 21 would still be allowed to purchase certain types of small caliber and hunting rifles so long as they have taken a firearms safety course.

“This would be setting up something similar to a provisional permit,” Prozanski said during an information session held last week. “It would be similar to what you would see in a driving license permit.”

Ballot Measure 114 capped the cost of a new permit at $65 and $50 for a renewal. Under SB 348, however, those caps will more than double to $165 for a new permit and $110 for a renewal, causing some critics to wonder if the cost will prove prohibitive for less wealthy Oregonians.

“For minimum wage people or single mothers, even though it doesn’t look like a huge increase, that’s significant,” Oregon director of Women for Gun Rights Candy Yow told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This can put some people out of the ability to actually buy a firearm and use them.”

The permit scheme is what’s known as “shall issue,” meaning so long as an applicant meets the minimum requirements, they will receive a permit.

“There is some subjectivity where it talks about the reasonable grounds to think that the person may be a danger to self or others,” said Jessica Minnifie, an attorney with the nonpartisan legislative council which helps draft legislation. She said the wording mimics the state’s concealed handgun licensing laws which are also considered “shall issue.”

If someone is rejected, they can petition a circuit court to overturn the decision.

The bill’s high-capacity magazine ban would be retroactive to Dec. 8, 2022, the day the ballot measure was meant to take effect.

Under the proposed bill, if someone is charged with possessing a high-capacity magazine and can prove they bought it before Dec. 8, 2022, or that they turned the magazine into a turn-in program or law enforcement agency, the charges will be dropped.

How a person would prove that, however, is unclear and not specified in the legislation. Minifie said there is no legal requirement for buyback or turn-in programs to give detailed receipts.

“It would be up to the person charged to offer some kind of proof as to what happened to that magazine,” she explained. “It would really depend on the circumstances.”

She said a receipt with a date and a description would be the best but proof might also entail witness testimony. Ultimately, she said the burden to convince a court falls on the defendant.

Ballot Measure 114 is currently tied up in both state and federal courts. A federal judge said the law could take effect pending a trial to determine its constitutionality. A state judge in conservative Harney County, however, said the law likely violates the state constitution and blocked it from taking effect until a trial can be held.

A Friday evening amendment to SB 348 appears meant to prevent a similar fate. A section added to the end of the 69-page bill, says any legal challenges must be filed in Marion County Circuit Court.

Rev. Mark Knutson, the chair of the gun control group Lift Every Voice Oregon and a chief petitioner for Ballot Measure 114, said he is happy to see the legislation moving forward but has issues with some of the changes made to the original measure.

“The two-year delay on permits for certain weapons is one [concern],” Knutson said. He also said that only allowing sheriffs or police departments to issue permits might intimidate some people out of applying. “You know our country’s history and to walk into a police office or a sheriff’s, for a person of color in particular, can be intimidating. So we want to make sure it’s equitably and clearly put in place.”

Michael Findlay, Director of Government Affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, called the bill a mess. Oregon State Shooting Association President Kerry Spurgin said it puts citizens at risk and Aoibheann Cline, Oregon director for the National Rifle Association, called it “a disingenuous attempt to usurp the authority of Oregon Courts.”

Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said this bill and other proposed gun restrictions are examples of control of the few by the many. She compared the proposed restrictions, ostensibly for the greater good, to the Holodomor, the 1930s famine created by Stalin in Soviet Ukraine that killed millions of Ukrainians.

Proponents of gun control “believe that they are fixing a societal harm but they wittingly or unwittingly play into the dreams of tyrants. They are weakening the population,” she said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a work session on SB 348 Monday afternoon.

In the Oregon House, legislators last week also advanced HB 2005 out of committee. The package of proposals would ban the possession or sale of untraceable firearms, called “ghost guns, raise the age to purchase a firearm to 21, and allow cities and counties to prohibit firearms in government buildings.

In testimony heard last week, critics blasted the laws as government overreach that was unlikely to address the root causes of gun violence.

Rep. Rick Lewis, R-Silverton, said he believed HB 2005 likely violated the 2nd and 14th amendments of the U.S. constitution.

“What we’re doing here…is telling a group of adults, based solely on their age, that they cannot exercise their constitutional rights,” Lewis told the House Judiciary Committee before voting against advancing the legislation out of committee.

The committee heard nearly two hours of public testimony both for and against the legislation. Committee Chair Rep. Jason Kropp, D-Bend, said everyone who spoke was espousing the same core values.

“I heard common values about wanting to have safe communities,” he said. “I know maybe there is some difference of opinion about how we get there.”

He said public safety and having safe, thriving communities are multifaceted. It includes access to housing, healthcare, and education but also common sense gun safety measures.

The bill now goes to the House Ways and Means committee.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Jonathan Levinson is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He’s the Audion Fellow covering Guns & America.