SALEM — A bill to expand background checks to private firearm transfers in Oregon is on its way to Gov. Kate Brown for a signature, after it passed the state House on a nearly party line vote Monday.
Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 941 after roughly five hours of debate. The vote was 32-28, with three Democrats — Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha; Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie; and Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay — voting “no.” The Senate passed the bill 17-13 last month.
Following the vote Monday, Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said he received assurances that lawmakers will work on a solution to allow gun owners to legally share weapons. Clem voted “yes” on Senate Bill 941, and said it is common for people in many parts of Oregon to share firearms with friends who need them for a specific hunt or simply want to try them.
“I think it will solve a whole lot of people’s angst,” Clem said. “It’s a very, very tough issue for people who grew up in these areas, to interact with colleagues who think it’s really weird we might pass guns around like baseball cards.”
Senate Bill 941 extends background checks to cover nearly all gun sales by requiring private sellers and purchasers to appear in person at a gun dealer, who would do the check. If the gun owner and recipient live more than 40 miles apart, the owner can ship the firearm to a dealer close to the purchaser. Gun transfers between family members would be exempt. The governor has already expressed her support for the bill.
Oregonians currently must pass background checks in order to purchase firearms at licensed dealers and gun shows. It is illegal for people in the state to have firearms if they are convicted felons, or were civilly committed to a psychiatric treatment facility or prohibited by a court from having firearms due to mental illness. Senate Bill 941 will also allow judges to decide whether people mandated to receive outpatient mental health treatment should be allowed to keep their weapons.
Republicans attempted unsuccessfully Monday to replace the bill with two separate minority reports.
The first proposal would have created a Firearms Investigation Division within the Oregon State Police and required the agency to assign at least eight full-time troopers to investigate people who fail background checks that are already required under state law at licensed firearm dealers and gun shows. The proposal would also have required the state police to hire two full-time employees to work on public education and outreach on firearm safety.
That minority report failed on a party line vote. The Oregon State Police started investigating people who fail background checks nearly a year ago at the request of then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, after Senate Minority Leader Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, pointed out the state was not conducting the investigations.
Senate Bill 941 will clarify in statute that the state can legally conduct these investigations, since OSP had previously believed it was unclear whether they had legal authority to investigate.
A second minority report also failed on a party line vote. It would have increased the penalties for people who illegally attempt to purchase firearms, and it would have earmarked $44 million from the state general fund to increase mental health services.
“We’re adding real teeth to these laws that are already in existence,” said Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, of the proposal to increase penalties.
Republicans also unsuccessfully pushed for Democrats to remove an emergency clause from the bill, so voters could hold a referendum on it. An emergency clause on the bill will prevent voters or the Legislature from referring it to the ballot.
Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, said he felt conflicted over the bill, but ultimately decided to vote for it because the potential benefits outweighed inconveniences to law-abiding gun owners. Evans, who served with the Oregon Air National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan, said his military background and experience as a gun owner were central to his decision.
“This is a 50-50 call for me, probably closer to a 51-49,” Evans said. “There’s a cost for this. For gun owners like me and many of you, it’s going to be inconvenient.”
Evans said background checks on private gun sales would be “an adjustment,” but society has already made other adjustments in response to gun violence.
“We’re living at a time children are practicing live shooter exercises,” Evans said, referring to school drills to practice how to respond during mass shootings. “We have a responsibility to do what we can, where we can, to try to save as many lives as we can.”
At the same time, Evans said Senate Bill 941 is not a cure-all for gun violence and the Legislature needs to provide more mental health services.
Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said that she and many other parents remember where they were when they learned of the December 2012 massacre of students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Yet despite the emotional impact shootings at Sandy Hook and Clackamas Town Center the same month, Smith Warner said Senate Bill 941 is also intended to prevent the shootings that occur regularly yet do not receive news coverage.
“Every person who can legally buy a gun now will be able to legally buy a gun if this bill passes,” Smith Warner said.
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.