Four weeks ago, the interfaith nonprofit Lift Every Voice Oregon had about 300 volunteers and had collected just a quarter of the signatures they needed to put a gun permit law on the ballot this fall. As of Thursday morning, organizers said 1,500 people from Coos Bay to Pendleton have gathered 115,000 signatures – more than they need to qualify.
The nonprofit’s goal is to reach 140,000 signatures by July 5, to have enough extra signatures to ensure a spot on the November ballot.
Joe Paterno, the volunteer field director for the effort, known as Initiative Petition 17, said scores of new volunteers from all across the state signed up after the May mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas.
“Almost to a person, it’s, ‘I want to do something. I feel the grief, the loss, the pain, and this gives me something concrete that I can do, an action that I can take,’” Paterno said.
He said volunteers came from every major metro area in the state, as well as many smaller towns like Coos Bay, Grants Pass and Pendleton. In addition to gathering signatures, volunteers are organizing to bring petitions from more remote parts of the state to Portland for counting next week, in time for the final deadline of July 8.
“There’s just so many wonderful people out there,” Paterno said. “It gives me faith in our community, in our society, to know that there are people that care and want to give their time and their effort for a cause they believe in.”
Paid signature gatherers usually contribute significantly to the success of ballot measure campaigns. But this effort has been largely driven by volunteers, said Rev. Mark Knutson, the pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church and one of the leaders of Lift Every Voice, which is committed to ending gun violence. Only 60 to 70 signature gatherers are paid workers. They’re hired through Osprey Field Services, a local consulting agency the provides community outreach services for political candidates, Knutson said. The nonprofit employs just two people, one of whom is part-time.
The campaign has been funded largely by small donors and donations that, like the volunteer effort, took off exponentially this spring. In all of 2021, the campaign took in 2,572 donations, the majority of which were for less than $100, according to finance data reported to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.
Since May 14, the day a white 18-year-old is suspected of killing 10 Black people in a Buffalo grocery store, the campaign has recorded 7,004 donations, most for $1,000 or less, totaling $156,933.
If passed by voters in November, the new law would require safety training and a completed background check to purchase a gun and would make high-capacity magazines, which hold more bullets than a regular firearm, illegal.
“We have several people that are gun owners that are really supportive of this measure because of is focused on safety,” Paterno said. “And it is common sense.”
Research on the effectiveness of permitting laws is limited, according to gun safety research by the Rand Corporation, a nonpartisan research firm, because federal regulations have “denied most researchers access to firearm trace data since 2003.” Only a few other states - including California, Massachusetts and Connecticut - have laws that require safety training to obtain a gun permit.
However, what research is available indicates such laws may help reduce suicide by gun. Oregon has the 13th-highest suicide rate in the nation, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is less clear if permitting laws reduce other forms of gun violence or accidental injury and death, according to Rand’s evaluation of the existing research.
For the measure to qualify for the ballot, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office must check and validate every signature. Some are always thrown out, for being recorded incorrectly, being duplicates, not quite matching the voter’s signature on their registration or some other reason. That’s why organizers plan to be out all Fourth of July weekend, hoping to secure at least 140,000 signatures.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a more accurate signature count as of the morning of June 30, 2022.