SALEM — As students and their supporters marched in communities across the country against gun violence on Saturday, Oregon gun retailers claim a citizen initiative petition intending to restrict the sale of so-called “assault weapons” is too broad.
One of the petitioners, though, maintains that the petition was written in consultation with gun owners and is intended to boost public safety.
The group, which filed an updated petition Thursday, wants to get a ban on the sale of certain semi-automatic guns with specific features on the statewide ballot. They must collect about 88,000 signatures by July 6 to go before voters in November.
Should the petition make it to the ballot and get approved by voters, people who legally bought the types of guns the petition seeks to restrict would have to register those weapons and pass a background check, requirements that have also prompted criticism from gun retailers.
Violating the law would be a felony.
At issue for gun retailers is the definition of “assault weapons,” which the petition describes in detail as semi-automatic rifles, pistols or shotguns with certain features.
As an example, the measure would ban the sale of semi-automatic rifles that have the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and include any of eight features, such as a pistol grip, a folding stock or a shroud around its barrel that allows the user to hold the rifle steady without burning their hand.
It would ban the sale of any semi-automatic pistol or rifle “with a fixed magazine, that has the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition.”
Karl Durkheimer, who owns Northwest Armory, a retailer with locations in Portland and Tigard, said that he was still trying to figure out how much of his inventory would fall under the petition’s definition of an assault weapon.
He expressed doubts that the measure was written by someone familiar with firearms.
“As someone who has sold guns, been a gun dealer for over 25 years, and been collecting guns since I was 16 years old, it’s not written by people who have very much gun knowledge,” Durkheimer said in a phone interview.
Scott Bryce, co-founder of GunRunner Arms in Junction City, likewise objected to the use of the term “assault weapon” in the petition.
“Assault is an action, not a class of firearm,” Bryce said.
This was a common criticism among Oregon gun dealers contacted by the EO Media Group/Pamplin Media Group Capital Bureau, who distinguish between fully automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
The former have generally been illegal for civilians under federal law for decades.
An automatic weapon fires continuously when you pull the trigger once. By contrast, a semi-automatic weapon fires a single shot when you pull the trigger and automatically reloads between shots. Many “modern” guns sold and collected are semi-automatic guns.
Durkheimer was also skeptical of the initiative petition’s provision for creating a registry for people who own those certain types of guns and having them go through a background check.
The way it works now, a person who wants to purchase a gun from a licensed dealer is subject to a state and federal background check.
However, the Oregon State Police don’t maintain a registry, and Durkheimer sees the petition as trying to change that status quo.
“If you come in and you buy a .22 rifle, the only person that knows you have that .22 rifle is Northwest Armory and yourself,” unless you choose to share that information with someone else, Durkheimer said.
When a gun has been used in a crime, the police have to request a “trace,” or manufacture and sale history, from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives using the serial number of the weapon in question.
The ATF can then find out the manufacturer of the gun, the wholesaler that distributed the gun, the licensed dealer that sold the gun, and the purchaser. About 70 percent of the ATF’s traces are successful, according to a July 2016 report by independent news organization The Trace.
Ron Redding, owner of Guncrafters, a Salem retailer, argued that the statute change sought by petitioners could hurt gun manufacturers, and claimed that banning the sale of weapons as specified in the petition would merely create a black market for them.
Petitioners say that their intent is to protect public safety.
Rev. W.J. Mark Knutson, senior pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland and initiative petition campaign chairman, said the campaign has members who are gun owners and were consulted in the crafting of the petition’s language.
Rather than banning what he characterizes as assault weapons outright, Knutson said, the petitioners sought to grandfather in legally purchased guns in a way that respected the rights of gun owners.
“This is not a campaign against anybody,” Knutson said. “It’s a campaign to protect our children and public safety in Oregon.”
Knutson pointed to the advent of seat belts as an example of when American society adapted to protect public safety.
As for the registry, Knutson pointed out that people register their cars, property ownership is public record and you have to register to vote.
“That’s part of being in a society,” he said. “ … This is being responsible as an adult Oregonian. We owe it to our young people. They don’t feel safe right now.”
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.