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Oregon voters narrowly passed a gun control measure. Ahead of its rollout, some questions remain


Mass shootings - massacres - are scarring the American landscape. They are so common that they prompt a predictable and grim sequence - news conferences offering updates on investigations, vigils for those who died and renewed calls for solutions to gun violence. We wanted to look this morning at how one state is seeking solutions. This past election, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure aimed at tightening gun laws there. Measure 114 passed, if narrowly. It goes into effect December 8 amid some uncertainty about how it'll work and at least one legal challenge. Reporter Jonathan Levinson covers policing for Oregon Public Broadcasting, and he joins us now. Hey, Jonathan.


FOLKENFLIK: What does Measure 114 seek to do, and what does it seek to achieve?

LEVINSON: This caps a years-long effort by gun safety advocates in the state to get more restrictive laws on the books. The law requires anyone who wants to buy a firearm to get a permit first. And so that means paying a maximum $65, passing a background check, getting fingerprinted and taking a course. And that course would include a hands-on demonstration showing that you know how to safely fire a firearm. It creates a more strict background check as well.

Currently, a person buying a firearm can fail a background check if they've been found guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial and committed to a mental institution. Under this voter-passed law, a permit could be denied if a person is reasonably likely to pose a danger to themselves or others based on a past pattern of behavior such as violence or threats of violence. With this law, Oregon also joins neighboring California and Washington and ten other states in banning high-capacity magazines. And in Oregon, magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds will be banned.

FOLKENFLIK: So how is this going to roll out?

LEVINSON: The law takes effect December 8, and so far it doesn't look like much, to be honest. The Oregon State Police are in charge of drafting the rules for purchase permits, and they've been pretty quiet about what that will look like. The requirements are fairly similar to the current process for a concealed handgun license, known as a CHL, with a few additions, like the hands-on portion of the course, for example. Right now sheriffs' offices run the CHL process, and it's presumed that they'll be tapped to run the permit to purchase applications.

A lot of them, as well as firearms dealers in the state, have joined a chorus of pushback saying that they simply don't have the capacity to process even more applications or host the training sessions to meet demand. But if you look at how many gun sales there were last year and how many concealed-carry licenses were issued, it's not totally clear this would add a huge amount to their workload. The permits are good for five years, so there's certainly going to be a surge upfront, but that should taper off.

FOLKENFLIK: So given what you're describing, how strongly is law enforcement embracing this measure and embracing this new law?

LEVINSON: Right. Like you mentioned, this measure passed by a very thin margin. It was largely carried by the state's more liberal populous counties. In some more rural counties, I mean, it got trounced by, like, a more than 2 to 1 margin. Many sheriffs have said they won't make enforcing the magazine ban a priority. Others have addressed some unfounded fearmongering and said that, you know, deputies won't be going door to door searching for contraband. But they said it's still their duty to uphold the law.

FOLKENFLIK: Door to door - is that something even envisioned by the law?

LEVINSON: Absolutely not. This is the kind of fearmongering we hear when new gun laws come around that, you know, law enforcement's going to be going around and actively seizing weapons or seizing magazines. Now, some sheriffs have espoused a fairly extreme position and said that they believe the law is unconstitutional and so they're not going to enforce it. To be clear, it's not a sheriff's job to interpret the Constitution. That's something judges do.

But this rationale is pulling from the extremist constitutional sheriff ideology. This was popularized in the 1970s by a white supremacist named William Potter Gale. And it resurfaced during the Obama administration by a former sheriff who's closely aligned with the Oath Keepers militia named Richard Mack. The idea has gained a foothold here in Oregon among several sheriffs and other far-right groups. And so we're seeing that resurface again.

FOLKENFLIK: So how is this playing out right now?

LEVINSON: So there's already one lawsuit filed in federal court asking a judge to throw it out, saying it's unconstitutional. And since voters passed the law in November, gun sales have skyrocketed in the state. According to the Oregon State Police, background checks have more than quadrupled on some days.

FOLKENFLIK: Jonathan, thanks so much.

LEVINSON: Thanks for having me, David.

FOLKENFLIK: That's OPB's Jonathan Levinson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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