There have been well over 3,500 firearm deaths in the U.S. so far in 2023, including the recent mass shootings in California. That’s according to a database by the Gun Violence Archive. William Brangham traveled to Oregon earlier this year to explore a voter-approved measure that aims to reduce gun violence. But as he discovered, the new law has sharply divided the state.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been well over 3,500 firearm deaths in the U.S. so far in 2023, including the recent mass shootings in California.
William Brangham recently traveled to Oregon to report on a voter-approved measure that aims to reduce gun violence. But, as he discovered, the new law has sharply divided the state.
At Portland’s Augustana Lutheran Church recently, interfaith leaders gathered for prayers and song. But the reason for this meeting wasn’t not religious, at least not overtly.
Rabbi Michael Cahana, Lift Every Voice Oregon:
We know that the status quo means more death, more gun violence.
This group called Lift Every Voice Oregon was behind a gun control ballot measure known as 114. It passed with 50.7 percent of the vote in last November’s election.
Molly Ramos, Measure 114 Supporter: I have a very personal story.
Twenty-one-year-old Molly Ramos worked on the campaign. Her brother Deshawn was killed in a shooting back in 2020.
Deshawn’s story gave me power, and it gave Oregon power to say, this is enough. There’s too many people dying in the streets. And it is not just the lives that got lost. It is the families’ devastations that they have to live through, the trauma.
Measure 114 would make Oregon’s gun laws some of the strictest in the nation. It requires gun buyers to first get a permit, which means they must complete a firearm safety course, pay a fee of up to $65 dollars, submit to a full background check, and receive approval from local law enforcement.
The measure also bans the sale and manufacture of high-capacity magazines, those holding more than 10 rounds. And it ends the so-called Charleston loophole, which allows gun purchases to go through after three business days, even if authorities haven’t completed the buyer’s background check. That’s how the man who killed nine parishioners in Charleston in 2015 obtained his gun.
Mark Knutson is the pastor at Augustana and was among those who led the push for 114. The church regularly tools its bell for people killed by gun violence in Oregon and around the country.
Rev. Mark Knutson, Lift Every Voice Oregon:
Something’s terribly wrong. These are tools, if they’re used wrongly, take lives and destroy communities and families and children.
Anybody buying a gun should see what a gun does. They should be trained in how it works, to know it’s not a toy. A permit, the purchase means you’re responsible. Most gun owners think that’s smart.
What do you make of the argument that only law-abiding citizens are going to abide by this, and this won’t really stop the illegal gun trade that is responsible for so many deaths?
Rev. Mark Knutson:
Look at the numbers of guns in this nation. Look at the gun industry promoting guns to especially young people. It’s going to make a difference.
You’re doing your job if you’re law-abiding gun owner. Thank you. But let’s now get the laws in place to make sure that we’re not just being swept over by guns and cartridges that have no business in our society.
114 supporters pointed data from other states that have these so-called permit-to-purchase laws. Connecticut passed a similar one in 1995, and gun homicides dropped by an estimated 28 percent. Gun suicides fell by a third.
After Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase law in 2007, researchers found a nearly 50 percent increase in the state’s gun homicide rate. And this was at a time when those rates were mostly falling nationwide.
But those arguments have done little to sway some gun owners and gun rights groups.
Chris Baumann, Owner, Aloha Arms:
I don’t think that the government should say you have to do something to be able to exercise an amendment right.
Chris Baumann owns Aloha Arms, a gun shop just outside of Portland. He argues that those who believe they need a gun for protection shouldn’t have any impediments.
The measure may save a few lives, but it’s endangering the lives of everybody else in the state by restricting their access for self-defense.
After 114 passed, Baumann saw a surge in sales and an explosion of people on the wait-list for a state background check.
When proponents of this measure say, we have got to do everything we can to stop the slaughter on the streets of our country, and that this doesn’t restrict really anyone from lawfully buying a gun — it puts a delay in there and it requires you to get trained — but we have to do something to stop that enormous death toll, what do you — how do you respond to that?
I say, start prosecuting the criminals. Start following up on red flag laws. Start following up on people who are being reported as mentally unstable. And if the FBI and the State Police and the local police aren’t following up on these orders, then they’re not doing their job and they’re endangering the community.
Oregon is a state that’s often characterized as having a pretty sharp political divide between rural and urban areas, with voters here in Portland and other cities along the Willamette Valley leaning to the left and then the rest of the state, which is rural, leaning largely to the right.
But Oregon is also a state where roughly half the households own a gun, and so, on Measure 114, the divisions weren’t quite so predictable.
Danita Harris works for Imagine Black, a group that aims to boost the political participation of Black Oregonians. The group came out against Measure 114.
Danita Harris, Imagine Black:
We don’t believe in half-measures. And what’s happening is when we say, yes, but, that but tends to get left behind. It doesn’t get funded, it doesn’t get prioritized, and we don’t move the but forward.
We have to focus housing. We have to focus on education. We have to focus on food. Otherwise, all of these other measures won’t be successful.
Imagine Black points to a 2020 Harvard Law School study which found Black people in Massachusetts were disproportionately charged for possessing firearms with large magazines.
Harris, who bought a gun three years ago for self-defense and sport, says 114′s permitting process opens the door for discrimination.
It requires the policing agencies to make the discretion whether or not a person is a threat to the community without any clear guideline or criteria to base that decision on.
More time spent unnecessarily working with these agencies only offers more harm for Black, brown and other people of color.
Measure 114 is now caught up in a web of state and federal litigation. A lawsuit filed in a rural Oregon county has so far stopped the measure from being fully implemented.
Chris Shortell teaches political science at Portland State University. He says 114 could make its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chris Shortell, Portland State University:
Even if the Oregon Supreme Court says this is OK under the Oregon state Constitution, I think the question of the Second Amendment is lingering behind a lot of these challenges.
The Supreme Court’s pretty expansive reading of the Second Amendment suggests that the court is not going to be very receptive to a lot of regulations that previously had been upheld.
Shortell says 114′s passage shows that, even in a state with strong gun traditions, people are open to putting greater regulation gun owners. But without a go-ahead from the courts, Oregonians may never see its effects.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham in Portland, Oregon.