The big divide over guns and violence plays out in the Oregon Legislature

Gun Rights

Oregon lawmakers heard civil but sometimes emotional testimony on Wednesday about firearms legislation to prevent gun violence and ban untraceable or detectable guns. 

Dozens testified, including Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt and representatives from the National Rifle Association.

Advocates also spoke, with people representing the gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action, who filled half the committee room, turning it into a sea of red T-shirts emblazoned with the name of their organization. 

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“I live in a neighborhood in northeast Portland that has had so many shootings in broad daylight that I am afraid to let my 10-year-old daughter walk to her friends’ houses,” said Bethany Wofford, a volunteer with the group. 

Wofford, like some others who testified, lost a family member to gun violence. One of her cousins died when someone became intoxicated and angry at a party and tried to shoot everyone.

“My cousin stopped him, but lost his life,” Wofford said. 

Several hundred people also submitted written testimony about the proposals discussed in the House Judiciary Committee in two hearings on Wednesday. House bills 2005, 2006 and 2007 would try to limit untraceable guns, raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase powerful firearms like semiautomatic weapons and allow local agencies to ban firearms on government property. 

Supporters, including Rosenblum and Democratic lawmakers, say the proposals would prevent gun violence and take untraceable guns without serial numbers – also called “ghost guns” – off the streets. The measures come amid national concern about the unrelenting onslaught of mass shootings and gun violence in general. 

In recent years, Oregon has seen a rise in gun violence. In 2020, 593 Oregonians died from homicide or suicide by firearms, state data shows. Of those, 110 cases involved homicide, up from 78 in 2019. 

The legislation has drawn fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers, the gun rights lobby and some firearms owners who say the measures infringe on the constitutional right to bear arms and would do little to prevent criminals from using firearms to commit a crime.

“We don’t have a gun problem,’” said Rep. Court Boice, R-Gold Beach. “We have a heart, mind and soul problem.” 

The morning hearing involved testimony from experts and elected officials, including Rosenblum. The second one in the evening was dedicated to  public testimony. 

Legislation overview 

The proposal is now in three bills, but the measures will be combined into one, House Bill 2005. That bill is scheduled for a committee vote on Tuesday. 

The three bills are:

  • House Bill 2005 would essentially ban undetectable and untraceable firearms by punishing the manufacturing, sales and possession of these weapons. 
  • House Bill 2006 would increase from 18 to 21 the legal age to purchase or possess a firearm. The proposal would have exceptions for firearms used for hunting and for people younger than 21 who are in the military or police officers.
  • House Bill 2007 would allow cities and counties, and other local agencies to restrict people licensed to carry a concealed handgun from possessing a firearm on the agency’s buildings or grounds.

Ghost guns 

House Bill 2005 would address two types of firearms: undetectable firearms made without metal to evade security screenings and untraceable firearms that lack a serial number.  

Undetectable firearms can be manufactured on a three-dimensional printer without metal components. The proposal would define an undetectable firearm as one constructed entirely out of nonmetal substances, including through a three-dimensional printing process. 

People convicted of felony manufacturing, importing or selling an undetectable firearm would face up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both. 

People convicted of possession of an undetectable firearm would face a misdemeanor on the first offense, which carries up to 364 days in jail, a $6,250 fine or both. Second offenses and beyond would carry up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both. 

Rosenblum is especially concerned about the proliferation of ghost guns. Unserialized guns can be purchased in kits, often online, and assembled.

Without a serial number, they hinder police investigations. “These guns appeal to people who can’t pass a background check,” Rosenblum said. 

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (in red) and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt testify Wednesday, March 22, 2023 to the House Judiciary Committee in support of a bill to ban “ghost guns. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Rosenblum said the proposal would close a loophole in federal rules by regulating possession of ghost guns. Federal regulations prohibit the importation and manufacturing of these weapons but do not address possession.

“Passing this bill will save lives and allow law enforcement to do its job of investigating crimes committed with guns,” Rosenblum said. 

Schmidt said the threat from ghost guns is “not hypothetical.”

Last year, his office prosecuted a woman for murdering her husband after purchasing a ghost gun online and changing the barrel to avoid forensic detection, he said. 

Since ghost guns are untraceable, investigators cannot tell which cases might involve them, he said.

Supporters say the goal is to encourage people with unserialized firearms to get them serialized. Lawmakers will amend the bill to give firearm owners a grace period of up to one year after the bill’s passage to get a serial number on their weapon. 

Opponents question whether the bill would help police investigate crimes because criminals also can remove the serial numbers from firearms.

Michael Findlay, director of government relations with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for the firearms industry, said firearms can be made undetectable through various means, including filing down the serial number. Doing so, however, is a federal crime with up to 10 years in prison.

Kevin Starrett, director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, warned lawmakers the legislation would create unnecessary complexity for law-abiding citizens – without stopping criminals.

“Until the requirements in this bill are declared unconstitutional, which they will be at great expense to your constituents, this bill will do nothing to impact criminals but will potentially entrap thousands of people who have no criminal intent,” Starrett said in submitted testimony.

The bill have  exceptions such as for antique firearms and firearms manufactured prior to Oct. 22, 1968, when federal law began requiring serial numbers.

For those who possess an untraceable firearm, the first offense would be a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000. The second offense would also be a misdemeanor, but carry up to 364 days in jail, a $6,250 fine or both. Third and further convictions would be a felony with up to 10 years of prison, a $250,000 fine or both.

Raising the age

The proposal to increase the age from 18 to 21 for the purchase and possession of a firearm has exceptions. Under the bill, people who are at least 18 but not yet 21 could still purchase several types of rifles and shotguns used for hunting, including a single-shot rifle or double-barreled shotgun. The restriction also would not apply to 18-year-olds and those older  who are in the military or police officers

“It is not a ban,” said Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth and a gun owner, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Evans said the number of young men involved in mass shootings nationwide underscores the need to raise the age to 21. 

Aoibheann Cline, state director of the National Rifle Association, pushed back against that, noting that people 18 can get married and join the military.

“I respectfully reject the argument that this is not a ban,” Cline said. “It is a ban for all future Oregonians. Those who have yet to be born.”

Local agency controls

The proposal would allow local jurisdictions like cities and counties to pass ordinances that forbid people with a conceal carry permit from having firearms on the agency’s buildings or grounds.

Under Oregon law, local agencies can restrict people from openly carrying firearms on public government-owned property. But Oregonians are exempt from those ordinances if they have a conceal carry permit, meaning the bill would close that exception.

Local agencies could decide whether to ban firearms entirely on their property – or in designated agency-owned areas. Or they could do nothing. One amendment to the bill would still allow a person to store a locked, unloaded gun in a vehicle in parking lots.

Supporters said it’s common sense to allow local officials to decide whether their government buildings can be gun-free zones.

“Just because someone has a conceal carry permit doesn’t mean that they’re immune from lapses in judgment,” Barbara Dallas of Happy Valley, also with Moms Demand Action, told lawmakers.

Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, said the bill would create problems and inadvertent violations, such as if a person walks past a city-owned house without realizing it, or along government easements on streets.

“It is unknown as you are walking down the street whose property is what,” Morgan said.

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