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Register-Guard: Battle Of Words Over Ore. Gun Law

A bill that would expand background checks to most private gun sales drew fierce and emotional testimony Thursday at a public hearing at the state Capitol.

Echoing the heated nationwide gun control debate, supporters and critics of Senate Bill 1551 testified in alternating panels for more than 21/2 hours, contradicting one another about the true effectiveness of expanding background checks.

Among those testifying in support of the measure was Capt. Mark Kelly, the husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot in the head at a campaign event in 2011.

Giffords and Kelly have become the face of the gun control effort in recent months, testifying on similar bills in several Western states and raising more money than any other national super PAC over the past two quarters.

On Thursday, Kelly pointed to a recent poll that showed strong support in Oregon for increasing background checks to help “keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the dangerously mentally ill and domestic abusers.”

That support, he said, “is because, like Gabby and me, most Oregonians are pro-gun ownership, but they’re also anti-gun violence.”

The proposed policy would require background checks on all private gun sales and transfers, except between extended family members.

Current Oregon law requires background checks for sales of guns by federally licensed dealers, such as retail stores, and at gun shows, but not for person-to-person or private online sales.

The law prohibits felons and some others with criminal backgrounds, and some people with a history of severe mental illness, from buying a gun.

In a brief statement of support, Gov. John Kitzhaber said that, while no single measure will end gun violence, SB 1551 “is a reasonable step that shows Oregon is serious about moving forward.”

Opponents said the bill won’t keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons because most felons would simply ignore the bill’s requirement to self-report private gun sales to state police, thereby preventing any background check from being carried out.

Critics added that state police typically do not pursue charges against people who try to buy a gun but fail to pass the state-run background check system.

About 1 percent of background checks have been flunked in the past two years, approximately 2,000 each year. Under state law, it’s a misdemeanor to try to buy a gun if you know you are prohibited by law from buying one.

SB 1551 “is ineffective and unenforceable,” said Dan Reid, a National Rifle Association lobbyist from Sacramento. “This legislation would not have prevented any of the (recent) mass shootings….

“I’m disappointed that tragedies like these are being exploited by the anti-gun agenda.”

The bill — a similar version of which was defeated in 2013 without a floor vote — is expected to face a tough path to approval this session, and some dismiss its resurfacing as a strictly political ploy. But key backer Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat, says the bill will get a vote on the Senate floor and that he expects it to pass that chamber.

No action was taken Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

For Jenna Passalacqua — whose mother, Cindy Yuille, was a victim of the 2012 Clackamas mall shooting — the policy doesn’t do enough.

“The fact that this is the strongest bill we have on the table right now is an embarrassment,” she said.

For others, there were fears about what the bill might lead to if it passes.

Kevin Starrett of Oregon Firearms Federation said the bill “clearly” could be used to create a registry of guns in Oregon, because each background check requires information about the buyer and seller as well as the gun being sold.

Such a registry could be used later to confiscate guns, he said.

Prozanski referred to that argument as a “conspiracist perspective,” pointing to earlier testimony by state police that records of passed background checks are kept for only 10 days before they are destroyed, while flunked ones are kept for five years.

“We have had a background check (law) since 1989 and there’s currently been no demonstration … of some type of registry that’s being kept on those guns,” he said.

Starrett countered that his position is not a “conspiracy theory.”

“The fact is we don’t know what they delete and we don’t know how many agencies have had access to this information before they delete it — if they actually delete it at all,” he said.

After the hearing, Sens. Betsy Close and Jeff Kruse, the two Republicans on the judiciary committee, said, in a joint prepared statement that, “It is disappointing we are focusing on such a divisive topic.”

“A better funded, more effective mental health care system will do far more to prevent mass gun violence than this bill. This proposal is not a solution, but political posturing in preparation for election season.”