Firearms would be banned in the Capitol and other state buildings, under a bill that passed the Oregon Senate on Thursday.
Senate Bill 554, approved in a 16-7 vote over the strenuous objections of Republicans, would also allow local governments, school districts and universities to set their own rules expanding gun prohibitions.
The bill is one of several-gun control measures Democrats have introduced this year, and one of the first truly contentious bills to be taken up by either chamber a little more than two months into the 2021 legislative session. It now moves to the state House of Representatives, where the response from Republicans is likely to be just as chilly.
While public buildings in Oregon already prohibit guns, state law has long carved out an exception for people who hold concealed handgun licenses, or CHLs. SB 554 would eliminate that exception in state buildings, eliminate a state preemption that currently stops local entities from enacting their own bans, and increase the cost of a CHL.
If the bill goes into effect, anyone caught with a weapon in a prohibited public space could be found guilty of a class C felony. Public entities would be required to post notice that concealed weapons are illegal.
SB 554 would also increase fees for applying for a concealed handgun license from $50 to $100, and the fee for renewing a license would increase from $50 to $75.
The bill’s supporters say escalating political tensions and outbursts of violence creates a need for more serious restriction.
In a floor speech, Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, brought up the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building, and a foiled extremist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But Burdick also recalled a 2019 day at the Oregon Capitol, when armed gun-rights advocates showed up to the building to protest gun bills.
“We had more panic buttons going off that day than any other time in my time in the Legislature,” Burdick said. “That was a warning sign, but the events of 2020 are a red flashing light that we need to do something. … We can’t have people coming in with loaded AR-15s and flashing a permit and saying ‘I have a right to be here’ without us knowing anything about their intent.”
Burdick also sought to cast doubt on the ability of existing background checks to weed out CHL holders who might be violent. She said it made sense for state buildings to mirror gun bans that already exist in federal buildings and courthouses, and she said that local public buildings should have the same ability.
“I’ve talked to school people in my district who have begged parents not to bring their guns into the schools,” Burdick said. “The parent, in one case, refused, ... and they have no recourse.”
Opponents of SB 554 say the bill is nonsensical and risks needlessly criminalizing law-abiding citizens. Senate Minority Fred Girod, R-Lyons, brought up research — sometimes contested — that suggests concealed-carry holders are less likely to commit felonies than police officers.
“I know that gun violence is a problem,” said Girod, who in hearings on SB 554 has said he had carried his own gun while in the Capitol. “CHL holders are not the problem.”
Opponents to the bill also argue that CHL holders are a line of defense against mass shootings — an argument that has been met with skepticism from some law enforcement officials, including Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese.
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.
Republican senators, as they have done frequently this year, also criticized the process that led the bill to the Senate floor. SB 554 was given a single public hearing. Testimony in opposition to the bill far outweighed testimony in support.
“It had one four-hour hearing,” said Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby. “I’d be willing to put down a pretty good bet that there isn’t a gun bill in the history of Oregon that had that brief a hearing.”
Recent polling conducted by the firm DHM research suggested that 59% of Oregonians support allowing local governments to ban guns in their buildings.
Since the Capitol is closed to the general public, Kennemer noted, lawmakers could not see the building choked with gun rights supporters, as invariably usually happens when a contested gun-control bill is brought forward. Instead, he said, many opponents found it difficult or impossible to testify against the bill virtually.
“It’s an interesting thing to be here at the Capitol when the gun wars are happening,” Kennemer said.
Republican lawmakers employed a number of tools to slow the inevitable passage of SB 554. They first floated their own alternative, which would have scrapped the Democratic proposal and required a study on whether gun prohibitions work to stem violent crimes. The alternative “minority report” was voted down along party lines.
GOP members then made a series of seven more motions to table the bill, refer it to various committees and postpone the proposal indefinitely. All failed, but not before Republicans spoke to the merits of each motion at length.
By the time the bill finally cleared the Senate, nearly three and a half hours had been spent in debate.
The bill comes as the Biden administration is giving renewed attention to gun control measures, and some other states are taking up the topic of guns in public buildings. Washington’s Senate passed a bill banning guns in its state Capitol last month.