By Jeff Mapes.
Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney blocked four gun-control bills from coming to the Senate floor to avoid what appeared to be a certain defeat for them.
Monday’s action by the Salem Democrat signaled what could be the death knell for thisyear’s effort by gun-control advocates to stiffen the state’s firearm laws in the wake of the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn. and Clackamas Town Center.
The measures – including one that would have extended background checks to virtually all private gun transactions in the state – were shuffled off to the Senate Rules Committee. Courtney said they could be revived in some fashion following another round of negotiations.
“Right now, the votes just aren’t there for the gun bills,” Courtney said in a statement, adding that he wants to see if “a bipartisan solution can be reached before the end of the session, particularly around the issue of background checks.”
Courtney’s decision upset the two Democrats leading the charge for the bills in the Senate – Judiciary Chairman Floyd Prozanski of Eugene and Sen. Ginny Burdick of Portland, the Legislature’s most ardent backer of gun control.
They both argued that lawmakers would be hard-pressed to vote against the bills, particularly on background checks because polls show such strong support for that measure, Senate Bill 700.
“The best outcome for the NRA and other extremists is for the bills not to go to the floor so that their supporters can continue to hide on this issue,” said Burdick, referring to the National Rifle Association.
Kevin Starrett, who heads the Oregon Firearms Federation, another gun-rights group, disputed that. He said he would have been happy to see legislators placed on the record on gun issues.
While Starrett said he was pleased the bills don’t appear to have majority support, he said he isn’t ready to declare victory because the rules committee has broad freedom to revive or rewrite the bills.
“Nothing is done until the last Prius leaves the building,” he said, adding “Some freak goes out and shoots up a kindergarten, and everything changes.”
Several legislators and lobbyists said that supporters were one vote short of the 16 needed to pass in the Senate. Last month, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she was parting ways with her fellow Democrats. All 14 Republicans had expressed their opposition.
“I don’t think they can pass them now this late in the session,” said Sen. Betsy Close, R-Albany, an opponent of the bills. “I think people are firm on this.”
Close said she and other critics of the gun-control measures believe the focus should instead be on bolstering the mental health system.
In addition to expanding background checks, the other major bill in the package,Senate Bill 347, would allow school districts to prohibit concealed handgun licensees from carrying their firearms onto K-12 school grounds.
The other two measures would require handgun licensees to keep their guns concealed in public buildings (Senate Bill 699) and also require applicants for the licenses to take a training course from a live instructor (Senate Bill 796).
Courtney also gave the Rules committee a fifth gun-related measure, Senate Bill 713, which would allow firing ranges in farm zones. Gun-rights advocates had sought that measure, and Courtney may have included it with the other bills to help grease negotiations.
The latest action in Salem mirrored the defeat last month for expanded background checks in the U.S. Senate. Gun-control supporters are also trying to revive the bill there, mobilizing voters shocked by the Newtown killings of 20 schoolchildren and six adults.
Oregon already has a more expansive law on background checks than the federal government. In addition to requiring licensed firearms dealers to conduct the checks, all sales at gun shows have to include background checks.
Last year, the state conducted checks on nearly 260,000 transactions and refused sales on about 3,500 of them. The most common reason: the individual had a felony conviction or is under indictment.
People can also be prohibited from possessing a firearm for several other reasons, including if they have been committed to a mental institution, dishonorably discharged from the military or convicted of domestic violence.