SALEM — In a rare development even for Democrat-dominated Oregon, lawmakers in both the state House and Senate have agreed to new a policy limiting gun use. The measure, passed Thursday, allows family members and police officers to petition for guns to be taken away from a people who show risk of harming themselves or others.
Senate Bill 719 narrowly passed the House 31-28, with no support from Republicans and “no” votes by three Democrats. It now heads to Gov. Kate Brown, whose largest 2016 individual campaign donor supports gun safety measures, for her signature.
Under the bill, a judge could issue an “extreme risk protection order” against a person deemed at risk of committing suicide or shooting others. The person would have 24 hours to hand over their guns to law enforcement before having officers take them away.
The policy is similar to one approved overwhelmingly by Washington voters in 2016 and modeled on court orders protecting victims of domestic violence.
But the bill pitted Oregon lawmakers against each other, with some firmly for or against the proposal, citing a need to prevent suicides and shootings or to uphold Second Amendment gun rights.
Making matters more complicated is that the bill’s author, Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, drafted the measure after his own stepson, U.S. Navy veteran Sethan Sprague, committed suicide in 2016. The bill passed the Senate in May only after an emotional debate during which Boquist made an impassioned plea that senators pass the measure in an attempt to help veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts.
The bill had appeared stalled in the House, but reached the floor for a vote in the last hours of the annual session.
“This is not an end-all-be-all to our mental health crisis, our suicide crisis,” bill carrier House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said Thursday. But, she said, allowing extreme risk protection orders could “help address that crisis.” She cited statistics showing that hundreds of Oregonians die each year from turning guns on themselves.
“This bill is not a panacea,” said Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, a U.S. Army veteran. But, he lauded the bill’s “procedure and process” of requiring a hearing in front of a judge to issue an extreme risk protection order.
Evans said those orders offer “another option for families who realize something needs to change and don’t want to see a loved one hurt themselves or others.”
Affected gun owners would get their weapons back after the order expires or they win at an appeal hearing.
House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said it was difficult for him to oppose the bill because he knows it’s meant to help people. But he said he feared Oregonians’ rights would be infringed by judges ordering their guns taken away.
“People do have rights,” McLane said, “even when the choices they make are wrong.”
Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, didn’t sugar coat his criticism. The bill is “poorly written,” said Barker, a retired police lieutenant.
He pointed out that lawmakers had the chance to pass other gun control bills this session that he said would have been better. One would have made sure a background check is completed before a gun sale. Another would have ensured domestic abusers can’t buy guns. Both were on Gov. Kate Brown’s agenda but died without a vote.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control proponent, contributed $250,000 to Brown last year. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group co-founded by Bloomberg, last year donated $15,000 to Williamson’s campaign and $102,500 to the House Democratic Caucus.
Supporting gun control measures has had consequences for lawmakers in previous years. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and then-Rep. Val Hoyle, also a Eugene Democrat, faced but survived recall election attempts after they shepherded a bill to mandate background checks for gun purchases in 2015.
— Gordon R. Friedman