A bill that would allow local governments, school districts and universities to prohibit handguns in public buildings is on its way to the Senate floor, following a tense committee hearing Thursday.
Senate Bill 554 is the first gun control bill of the 2021 legislative session to move toward a floor vote. And in normal fashion, the measure drew intense opposition from gun owners.
Currently, anyone with a concealed handgun license in Oregon can legally bring their weapon into buildings such as city halls, public university buildings, or public schools. SB 554 would not change that, but it would allow governments, school districts, ports and other entities to create their own rules banning firearms in their buildings.
Those bans would need to be made clear with signage and online notices. Anyone violating the rules could be subject to a class C felony.
SB 554 would also increase fees for applying for a concealed handgun license from $50 to $100, and the fee for renewing a license from $50 to $75.
In committee hearings and hundreds of pieces of written testimony, opponents of the bill argued that it amounted to an unnecessary infringement on gun rights. Many pointed out that concealed handgun licensees need to pass background checks and must meet a range of requirements, including not having misdemeanor convictions within four years and no outstanding warrants.
Those requirements, opponents say, mean that CHL holders tend to be law-abiding citizens. Many people referred to claims that concealed handgun licensees are less likely to be convicted of a crime than police officers, though the data surrounding that comparison is fuzzy.
Others have argued that people with concealed-carry licenses are a last defense against criminals and mass shooters. The FBI tracks active shooter incidents in the U.S., along with how those events end, and typically finds a relatively small percentage are stopped by armed citizens and unarmed citizens alike. The numbers behind the FBI reports are sometimes disputed by gun rights advocates.
“There’s confusion about CHL holders and violent crime,” Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, testified in a hearing Monday. “There’s a huge difference between the two.”
Though SB 554 did not contemplate the state Capitol, Girod said he and his wife routinely carry guns in the building, and would not stop. “I’ll be darned if I’m going to be a sitting duck for a person who wants to come in and start shooting,” he said. “It’s just not right.”
More generally, opponents of the bill have argued it will not make public buildings any safer, since people planning to commit violence would disregard any weapons ban. Gun rights advocates say the proposal instead will needlessly put law-abiding gun owners at risk of committing felonies as they encounter a patchwork of varying restrictions on where they can carry.
“This law will have the effect of inviting an emboldened criminal element,” said state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer. “It will make our communities less safe.”
Proponents of SB 554 say it should be up to local governments and school districts to decide if guns are acceptable in their buildings. They point to a Supreme Court decision penned by late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in 2008 that suggested such limitations were permissible under the Second Amendment.
“As an elected official, I believe it’s incumbent on me and my colleagues to welcome the public,” Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “Our sense of safety is increasingly threatened as our public buildings have become focal points for antidemocratic extremists.”
Another proponent, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, noted that sheriff’s offices are required to issue CHLs to qualified applicants without those applicants demonstrating a need, “and certainly no hands-on proficiency test demonstrating responsible gun ownership skills.” He said his office saw an unprecedented crush of people applying for the licenses in 2020.
“One of my concerns as a sheriff in these divisive times for our deputy sheriffs and police officers in Multnomah County, when they are responding to a crisis call in a public building such as a school, is that they will encounter a CHL holder who has brought a firearm on campus, forcing our deputy to make a split-second decision about that person’s intentions,” Reese said.
In an amendment to SB 554 passed Thursday, lawmakers inserted language clarifying that concealed weapon prohibitions are limited to actual buildings, and not adjacent parking lots or parking structures. The amendment also sought to address concerns gun owners might be caught off guard by a prohibition by requiring public buildings to post signage about any ban.
And notably, lawmakers declined a proposal to insert an emergency clause into the bill, a provision that would make it operable right away if it’s signed by Gov. Kate Brown, and would make it harder for opponents to refer the change to voters.
“There will be the means for the general public, if they choose to take this on a referendum basis, to be able to do that,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair.
The committee has already been tense at times this session. The committee’s three Republican members, Sens. Thatcher, Dallas Heard and Dennis Linthicum, have routinely voted against even routine matters in protest to the ongoing closure of the Capitol building.
Those tensions came to the fore Thursday. Republican lawmakers argued that the committee was rushing passage of the bill, reasoning that hundreds of people had offered written testimony and that some may have missed out on the opportunity to testify in person.
Prozanski, the committee chair, noted that nearly 50 people testified in opposition, and that there would be further opportunities if the bill moves in the House. Prozanski later noted that the central political action committee for Senate Republicans, The Leadership Fund, had sent out a fundraising email this week based on SB 554.
“If we don’t have the funds to stand up and fight against the unconstitutional attacks of the radical left, then your ability to own a gun will never look the same again!”
Prozanski said the email suggested Republican senators might have a conflict of interest to declare on the bill. None agreed. Heard accused Prozanski of being disrespectful.
“It’s just amazing how the majority has no patience for anyone else’s opinions even though you always get what you want,” he said. “I just cannot believe how you abused your position today.”
Not long after, in a move that could set a bitter tone for the 2021 session, Senate Republicans refused to attend a floor session of the Senate.