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Oregon Weighs Own Gun Measures After Mall Shooting, Newtown

Gun rights supporters rally at the Oregon Capitol in February.
Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
Gun rights supporters rally at the Oregon Capitol in February.

Oregon state lawmakers have scheduled a marathon public hearing Friday on four gun control bills. The proposals include a ban on guns in schools and criminal background checks for private gun sales.

Opponents are lining up against the measures, but some gun control advocates say the proposals don't go far enough.

Just days before the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December, Oregon had a high-profile shooting of its own. A gunman opened fire in a crowded shopping mall in a Portland suburb, killing two and injuring one before turning the gun on himself.

In the aftermath of the twin tragedies, some Oregon lawmakers proposed a slate of gun bills. And that led to public rallies at the Oregon Capitol this year.

One February rally drew more than a thousand people — including Virgil Negru. Afterward, Negru toured the Capitol building with a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder and a handgun at his side.

"I like firearms, and I don't think they should be used to kill people like lately [has been] happening, but we do have the right to bear arms," he said.

It's perfectly legal to openly carry a gun in the state Capitol in Oregon if you have a concealed handgun license. But while no incidents were reported, the sight of people walking the marble hallways with semi-automatic weapons rattled some lawmakers.

That led to a proposed ban on openly carrying weapons in the state Capitol. The other measures would ban guns from school grounds; require more training for people who want a concealed carry permit; and require criminal background checks for private gun sales.

Too Much Or Too Little?

"Obviously, I'd like us to be bolder," says Democratic state Sen. Ginny Burdick, a longtime advocate of stricter gun laws. She hoped the December shootings would finally galvanize public opinion in favor of banning high-powered rifles and large-capacity magazines.

"Of course I would prefer to ban them in Oregon," she says, "because I think we need to take a stand that the kinds of mass shootings we've been seeing and the weapons of war on our street are unacceptable."

But Kevin Starrett, head of the Oregon Firearms Federation, says the gun control proposals are "desperate attempts to do something while not actually addressing any real problem."

Starrett's group calls itself "Oregon's only no compromise gun lobby" and has been able defeat gun control bills in the past. Starrett says the proposed measures are an attempt to exploit the shopping mall and elementary school shootings.

"People who commit crimes with guns are not going to subject themselves to the background check," he says. "So who is it having any impact on? It's having an impact on the people who are willing to obey the law — who wouldn't do anything bad in the first place."

A State Solution?

The Oregon lawmaker who scheduled Friday's hearing is Democratic Sen. Floyd Prozanski, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He says he wouldn't mind even stricter gun laws. But he thinks those laws would be better addressed by federal legislation.

"I don't find at this point where a state is going to be able to insulate itself away from the troubles and the harms when you can actually go to an adjacent state and buy the same equipment," Prozanski says.

The Oregon hearing comes just days after lawmakers in Connecticut passed a strict new gun law, reacting to the Newtown shootings.

After Friday's Oregon hearing, the Judiciary Committee will vote next week. If the measures pass, they could reach both the state House and the Senate by the end of the month.

Copyright 2013 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman
Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.