Right to own a gun also comes with responsibilities

Helen Seidler /

The presumably unintentional midday shooting of a man by his wife in Bend’s northside McDonald’s on Feb. 7 gives us the opportunity to reflect on Oregon’s gun laws and the issue of public safety. The shooting occurred when the wife’s loaded and unlocked gun fell on the floor, sending a bullet into the husband’s stomach. Is it legal to take a loaded and unsecured gun into a public establishment? The answer is yes. Any adult (most convicted felons excepted) can carry any exposed and legally available gun into a public place (schools and federal buildings excepted) with no requirements that the gun be unloaded or locked. If the gun is concealed, a concealed handgun license is required.

There is an obvious risk to public safety when practically anyone can be armed with a weapon without restriction. The danger to the public arises either from mistakes in handling guns that cause injury or damage (as in the McDonald’s incident) or being in the wrong place at the wrong time when guns are used deliberately in a public setting (as in the Clackamas Town Center shooting last December). Those of us who feel this is an acceptable situation need not challenge the status quo. But for those of us who think we can do better, this is the time to act. And action means contacting elected representatives in both Salem and Washington, D.C. to voice your opinion on increasing gun safety.

While the right to own guns is not under dispute, the rights of the non-gun-owning public need to be acknowledged and upheld as well. Those rights should include protection from gun violence in public, a right that would be enjoyed by gun owners and non-gun owners alike. The right to gun ownership should be accompanied by responsibilities compatible with owning a deadly weapon. Gun owners should be held liable for damage caused by their weapons to people and property. This would include leaving their weapons unsecured so that children and those seeking to steal weapons are able to access them.

I can think of several reasons to have a gun. One is owning a tangible piece of American history represented by guns handed down from earlier generations. Another is sport shooting, which can be and for the most part is safely practiced at shooting ranges. A third is self-defense in the home (which requires accepting the fact that statistically, those who live in homes with guns are at far greater risk of harm than any intruder might be). A final reason to have a gun is to impose one’s will on another person or persons with the threat or reality of firing the gun. That final reason leads to criminal law, but that is not where the gun regulation gaps can be found. The gaps are in the uncontrolled proliferation and ready access to guns by everyone.

Maybe some also want to own guns just because they like them. But most of us do not own guns. The National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago conducts a periodic General Social Survey and has found that gun ownership has declined in recent decades. In 1973, about half of American households had guns; in 2010, only one in five Americans owned a gun. Surely we can find a way to allow the minority who own guns to do so without sacrificing the safety of the majority of us who do not.

Oregon’s gun laws are notoriously lax, requiring no registration or safety training in order to buy a gun, no safety locking devices or safety standards for guns, and no penalty for allowing a minor access to a firearm. While Oregon does require background checks of purchasers at gun shows, sales through the newspaper and the Internet are free of these checks.

There is much work to be done on the gun safety issue. Please join the conversation now.