Governor, AG step up for gun controls in packed Capitol hearings | Salem Reporter


Hundreds showed up for legislative committee hearings in Salem Tuesday on proposals for gun storage and security and other gun issues.

Visitors to the Capitol watch testimony on gun control legislation on televisions in the lobby Tuesday. (Claire Withycombe/EO Media Group)

SALEM — When state Rep. Rachel Prusak was 16, she was dating a boy who she says became controlling and aggressive.

Her parents helped her get a restraining order against him — but then he showed up at her house with a gun. He flashed it at her, and demanded that she go on a walk with him. She agreed, placated him and he let her go.

He was then arrested for violating the restraining order, but it wasn’t the only time he would get arrested for that, she told the House Judiciary Committee in testimony Tuesday.

Even when she moved out of town, he would show up at her parents’ house.

“I truly felt like my life was at constant risk,” Prusak, a freshman Democrat representing Tualatin and West Linn.

Prusak was one of dozens of Oregonians who brought personal experiences with guns to the Capitol Tuesday, where lawmakers heard testimony on proposed gun regulations.

Prusak supported House Bill 2013, which would tighten a 2018 state law restricting domestic abusers from possessing guns.

That was the first Oregon gun control law passed in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.

Oregon activists tried to get more gun restrictions on the statewide ballot, but failed.

A second bill that lawmakers now are considering, Senate Bill 978, incorporates one of those proposed restrictions by creating gun storage requirements.

Both bills drew impassioned testimony, and as of Tuesday evening, more than 500 people had submitted written testimony.

Witnesses who got two minutes to address the House Judiciary Committee spoke with conviction as they sat at the semicircle wooden table before the dais.

A mother talked about receiving “I love you” texts from her children during lockdown drills at school, thinking it could be their last. A pediatrician recounted two young patients who died after they got their hands on unlocked guns. Several witnesses drew on military and police careers to make their points.

The major draw for witnesses appeared to be Senate Bill 978, which contained 44 pages of new gun regulations, including provisions that allow retailers to raise the minimum age to buy a gun and regulating 3-D printed guns.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, when public testimony was scheduled to start on that bill, a long line of people still snaked around the Capitol basement, waiting to fill out a sign-up sheet to testify against the bill.

Capitol staff and lawmakers expected the crowds. Two committees took testimony: in the morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 978, and the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on House Bill 2013.

The hearings were tightly orchestrated.

Each committee chair set a two-minute time limit on testimony, and two more rooms in the Capitol were set aside for people who couldn’t fit in the main hearing room.

The public hearings were concentrated by design, said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

“It was intentional to have it all in one day, because you get the advocates, pro and con, all here to state their case,” Kotek told reporters on Monday. “It also creates a bit of a tension in the building, when we have that many people in the building on that topic, so we try to do it in one day.”

Just over a week earlier, on March 23, gun rights supporters gathered in front of the state Capitol to protest efforts by the legislature to regulate guns.

The committees are expected to hold work sessions on the bills next Monday.  

Under SB 978, Oregon retailers could set their minimum age to buy a gun at up to 21, and gun owners would have to secure their guns with a cable or trigger lock, or in a securely locked container.

Elements of the bill regarding storage and requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen firearms are named after Cindy Yuille and Steve Forsyth. They were killed in a 2012 shooting at the Clackamas Town Center mall.

The gunman in that incident had stolen the firearm.

The bill would also place strict regulations on 3-D printed, or “ghost” guns, a provision that drew Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to testify in favor.

Under the proposed law, failing to transfer guns in a secure way and failing to report lost or stolen firearms within 72 hours would be violations of law.

The bill would also hold gun owners liable for any injuries that result within two years if their firearm is stolen and they don’t report it.

People who transfer a firearm to a minor would, under the proposed law, need to directly supervise the minor using it, except for minors who own guns or have a valid youth hunting license.

There would be liability to the person who transferred a gun to a minor if the minor injured someone or damaged property using the gun and didn’t directly supervise that minor.

The law would also require the state’s health agency to establish rules for minimum specifications for trigger locks, cable locks and containers that have tamper-resistant locks on them by Jan. 1.

If a person who leaves a firearm in a place where they know a minor is likely to gain access to it, and a minor does gain access to the firearm, they would be committing a Class A violation, with exceptions if the firearm was properly stored.

Unlawful storage of a firearm would become a Class B misdemeanor if a minor gets ahold of an unsecured firearm and “exhibits the firearm in a careless, angry, or threatening manner,” and a Class A misdemeanor if the minor kills or injures another person after getting an unsecured gun.

Gov. Kate Brown was the lead witness.

Brown was in office eight months when a 26-year-old man killed nine people and wounded eight others, and then killed himself, in a shooting at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1, 2015.

“As we worked to comfort the families, I struggled to find the right words,” Brown said. “But I resolved that I would do everything I could to make sure that it would not happen again.”

Brown told lawmakers the Senate’s bill would set clear standards for safely storing guns and preventing kids from getting them.

“Just as (it’s) important to wear a seatbelt or a helmet, it’s critical that people keep their guns safely secured when not in use, particularly when children are in the home,” Brown said.

The bill would also have hospitals submit more information to the state about patients injured by guns, which she said would improve the state’s policy decisions.

Proponents argued the measures were “common sense.”

Yet opponents of SB 978 said the bill would affect “law-abiding citizens” and worried that the new laws could prevent gun owners from getting their guns quickly in an emergency.

Others raised concerns about urban areas of the state legislating for rural ones.

“On this side of the mountains, guns are tools, not a luxury item that sit above a mantel or on a wall,” Crook County Judge Seth Crawford told lawmakers by phone. “They’re used in hunting, ranching and in protecting our homes and families.”

The section that requires adult supervision of minors using guns would limit youth hunting and recreational shooting, Crawford claimed.

“These youth are not out in the woods causing trouble,” Crawford said. “They are responsible members of our society. They’re carrying on a tradition that goes back generations.”

“(The bill) disregards the primary reason that individuals own a firearm, and that’s for personal protection,” said Keely Hopkins, Oregon state director for the National Rifle Association.

“You want to make felons of your citizens, so that you can, well, let’s say, take away all their guns,” said Greg Terhune, who told lawmakers he was the proprietor of a Salem personal protection training business and served as a emergency services chaplain in Keizer.

He ended his testimony by saying gun owners were “citizens, not subjects.”

“If you further infringe on our rights, we will not comply,” Terhune said, just as the two-minute timer started beeping.

Opponents erupted in applause.

Reporter Claire Withycombe: cwithycombe@eomediagroup.com or 971-304-4148. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

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