PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Senate voted Thursday to advance a bill banning guns at the Capitol and other state facilities and letting cities, counties, schools and commercial airports decide whether to allow people into their buildings with concealed handgun licenses.
Despite four hours of discussion and overwhelming opposition by gun owners and Republicans, the bill passed, 16-7, and will be move to the House. Four GOP senators were absent from the floor, an increasingly common occurrence by the minority party in attempts to block Democratic priorities by denying quorum.
Besides exacerbating tensions between the parties, the bill also gained lots of attention from Oregonians — more than 2,000 people sent written testimony, most of which opposed the bill.
“People in the eastern part of our state and in the southern part of our state – some of the rural areas – may have a different view of guns than we have in the urban area,” said Sen. Ginny Burdick, a Portland Democrat. “Senate bill 554 gives (local jurisdictions) the option of whether to continue concealed license handgun holders to bring loaded guns into schools and public buildings. The school board gets to decide. That means the community gets to decide. Not just the gun owner.”
States have been split about allowing Capitol visitors, legislators or employees to carry guns. But the issue has drawn increased attention after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
About 50 far-right protesters also breached the Oregon Capitol on Dec. 21, during a one-day special session that was closed to the public. They had gathered outside to oppose statewide COVID-19 restrictions, and some toted guns and broke glass doors.
“The events of 2020 are a red flashing light that we need to do something,” Burdick said.
She also cited a U.S. Department of Homeland Security bulletin on Jan. 27 that warned extremists may be emboldened by the breach of the U.S. Capitol to target elected officials and government facilities.
“When we open the Capitol, we can’t have people coming in with loaded AR-15 and flashing a permit and saying, ‘I have a right to be here’ — without knowing anything about their intent.”
However, others argued that licensed concealed handguns — which about 300,000 Oregonians have — could save lives and protect people.
“It appears as though the supermajority and others believe that you only have the right to possess a gun if you are in your home, and that would be terrific if you lived your entire life in your home. But we don’t. We live our lives in our communities,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican.
“We go to the store — not normally thought to be a dangerous act, to go to the grocery store, yet as we have seen recently it can be deadly,” he said, noting this week’s mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado.
Under current Oregon law, a person with a concealed handgun license can possesses a firearm or other weapon while in a public building, including the Capitol.
Guns are allowed in statehouses in some form in 21 states, according to a February review by The Associated Press. Eight states allow only concealed firearms inside their capitols, while two states allow only open carry. In addition, at least 13 states, including Oregon, do not have metal detectors at the entrance to their capitols.
A Michigan panel banned open the open carry of guns in the state’s Capitol just one week after the U.S. Capitol riot and following a plot last year to storm the statehouse. In Montana, a law signed last month allows anyone with a permit to bring a concealed firearm into the state Capitol, while Utah passed a law allowing people to carry concealed weapons in its Capitol and elsewhere in the state without a permit.
Oregon’s proposed bill authorizes any city, county, commercial airport, school district, college or university to limit or preclude a concealed handgun licensee from possessing firearms in public buildings.
Republicans proposed that the bill be re-referred to a committee for further public hearings, arguing one four-hour hearing is “not a fair process” for such a controversial bill.
GOP lawmakers floated at least eight motions, including sending the measure to different committees and postponing it, but all failed.
Republicans in the Oregon House likely will echo the remarks of those in the Senate, where tensions have risen as lawmakers debate several-gun control measures introduced this year.
If the bill takes effect, anyone caught with a weapon in a prohibited public space could be found guilty of a class C felony. In addition, the measure would increase the fee for applying for a concealed handgun license from $50 to $100. The fee for renewing a license would go from $50 to $75.
Proponents continuously noted that jurisdictions would be able to decide how to proceed.
“The emails we have been getting make it seem like we are imposing some draconian new provisions – we are not,” Burdick said. “We are simply, for state buildings, putting concealed licensed handgun owners on the same basis as other gun owners. And for local governments and schools, we are allowing those communities to decide for themselves – not us – to decide.”
Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.