Oregon lawmakers last year gave every public school district in Oregon the option to ban guns from their premises.
So far, most districts have declined to take them up on the offer.
Since a change to Oregon law in September, just 13% of the state’s public school districts have opted to close an exemption that allows holders of a concealed handgun license, or CHL, to carry weapons onto public property where possessing a gun would otherwise be a felony.
According to an OPB analysis, that list includes some districts in the Portland metro area — though not yet Portland Public Schools — along with far more rural school systems. Among the 25 that have banned guns are districts in Klamath Falls, Myrtle Point, Tillamook, Pendleton, Tigard-Tualatin, Lake Oswego and Woodburn.
The vast majority of the state’s 197 public school districts have, to date, taken no such action.
Whether or not to prohibit guns in schools has been a contentious point in Oregon, where one estimate suggests gun ownership is more prevalent than in many other states.
The massacre of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas has many Americans demanding measures to narrow access to firearms — a dynamic on display over the weekend, when gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson faced heated questions about her pro-gun stance from a crowd in Portland.
Gun rights groups and sympathetic politicians, meanwhile, insist having armed citizens nearby during an attack could limit damage from mass shootings. Opponents of the 2021 Oregon bill have suggested new restrictions are more apt to make public spaces less safe because CHL holders are overwhelmingly law-abiding. Mass shooters, they point out, don’t care about gun bans.
“I know that gun violence is a problem,” state Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, said during a debate on the gun control bill, Senate Bill 554, last year. “CHL holders are not the problem.”
School districts that have put bans in place acknowledge the policy won’t dissuade someone bent on carrying out violence. But they say the stricter rules are something students have pressed for, and that campus bans are a logical step many people already assumed existed.
“This is a values statement,” said Kirsten Aird, chair of the Lake Oswego school board, which passed a ban in December. “This is where we’re going. It reinforces our values.”
Chipping away at gun possession
In Oregon, concealed handgun license holders must be at least 21, and are required to undergo a background check and complete a gun safety training course prior to receiving a license. In exchange for those steps, people with a CHL have long been granted leeway to bring their weapons into places where guns are otherwise prohibited.
With SB 554, lawmakers chipped away at that privilege. They banned guns in the state Capitol and the terminal of Portland International Airport, whether or not a person has a CHL. And they gave public schools, colleges and universities the option to implement their own bans.
A separate provision of state law, unimpacted by the bill, allows lawfully possessed guns on school grounds as long as they are unloaded and locked in a vehicle, regardless of a school board’s actions.
In some school districts, gun bans have passed with little fanfare, barely noticed amid a string of dull agenda items.
At the Hillsboro School District, two people spoke up when the policy was first introduced in December, both supportive. When the ban came up for a vote in January, one board member voiced misgivings, suggesting arming teachers could help ward off attackers.
“Most shooters when confronted break off their attack or kill themselves,” board member Monique Ward said before voting against the policy. It passed with support from every other school board member.
Lake Oswego School District didn’t even see that level of pushback when its board passed a ban last year.
“This was student-led,” said Aird, the board chair. “No testimony came in opposing it. No one spoke up in opposition.”
But in one district, the passage of the gun ban has been contentious.
Prior to a vote on the policy at Eugene School District 4J earlier this month, the hardline Oregon Firearms Federation called its members to action.
The posting on the group’s website contained misleading verbiage, suggesting the school board could “prohibit CHL holding parents from being anywhere on their property,” as opposed to banning guns that were not locked and unloaded in a vehicle.
“At a time when the state refuses to address rising levels of violence, taking away parent’s ability to protect their children is an act of insanity,” the notice read. “Please contact the school board and strongly object to this new attack on common sense.”
At the May 18 meeting of the school board, a group of self-described conservatives stood to object that they hadn’t been able to speak against the new gun policy — potentially because they’d failed to sign up to testify, the board’s chair said.
The disruption led the board to take a recess and exit the room, leaving the gun rights supporters to talk among themselves about their criticisms.
“If you take away the ability to carry firearms around the school, you are basically putting targets on the back of our children,” one woman said. “They are soft targets. They’re easy to take out, as well as the teachers.”
The board wound up postponing a vote until June. Board members are moving public meetings online until they can arrange security for in-person meetings, especially “contentious” ones.
Portland Public considering its own policy
Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is also still awaiting action on a gun ban. Board member Julia Brim-Edwards said last week a policy has been working its way through the district’s committee process and has not attracted any opposition. It could be voted on as early as mid-June.
“Most people would be surprised that we hadn’t been allowed to prohibit [guns] in the first place,” Brim-Edwards said. “I feel very strongly about it as a parent and also as somebody who owns a firearm. This is a very practical, common sense thing to do.”
While many districts that adopted bans used policy language crafted by the Oregon School Boards Association, Brim-Edwards said Portland’s is more narrow. It carries fewer opportunities for someone to get an exemption to bring a gun onto school grounds but does include a carve-out for examples like armed guards depositing money in the ATM at district headquarters.
Under the policies in place in many districts and being considered in Portland, anyone violating the ban can be cited for trespassing, ejected from PPS premises, or referred to law enforcement. CHL holders violating school gun prohibitions face a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $6,250 fine.
Merely banning guns in schools, of course, will not stop a person bent on committing violence.
To help prevent or limit damage from mass shootings, gun safety advocates more frequently propose policies like stepped-up background checks, outlawing high-capacity magazines, and raising the legal age for purchasing weapons.
Oregon has enacted a variety of gun controls over the years, including a policy that lets the state confiscate the weapons of a person deemed high-risk, mandating background checks for private gun sales, and requiring gun owners to lock their weapons when not in use. The group Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates policies to curb shootings, rates Oregon’s laws eleventh in the nation, lagging behind California and Washington.
Backers of policies banning guns in schools acknowledge it’s a small step. Board members in three districts OPB spoke with said they could not point to an incident where a CHL holder or their weapon had caused an issue on school grounds.
“It just allowed us to complete the commitment that we already had in place of having gun-free schools,” said Melissa Barnes Dholakia, chair of the Bend-La Pine school board. The board passed a ban in December, receiving just two comments on the policy, both of them supportive.
Aird, with the Lake Oswego school district, said that the fact that lawfully concealed weapons had not been an issue there was no guarantee they could not be at some point.
“Sometimes it’s not a problem until it’s a problem,” said Aird, stressing she was speaking for herself and not the board. “Then it’s too late and people come back and say you could have done something about it.”
For some students, the possibility that lawful guns could cause trouble on campus was a primary driver of their support for a ban.
When the Hillsboro school board enacted the policy in January, a high school student named Ceph Tronco was among those voicing support.
“What I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been hearing about this policy isn’t, ‘Is someone going to be in place to stop an attempted school shooting?’” Tronco said. “It is: ‘Is someone going to have brought a gun into a school grounds that accidentally discharges? Or is somebody going to have the potential to get into a charged argument that escalates because of the presence of a firearm?’”
The bottom line, Tronco said: “We do not want people to be bringing firearms onto our campuses.”