SALEM — A gun shop just a few blocks from the state Capitol shows the effect of recent gun control efforts in the Oregon Legislature — nothing’s changed.
After a mass shooting at a crowded shopping mall in suburban Portland and a massacre three days later at an elementary school in Connecticut last December, lawmakers in Salem joined a national debate over gun laws with Democrats pitching plans to ban large-capacity ammunition magazines and some assault rifles.
But months later at the 12th Street Gun Shop, military-style weapons and big clips remain legally available.
“We don’t need one more gun law,” said owner and retired police officer Bill Lewis recently. “We need to start exercising and enforcing the ones we already have.”
Such opposition thwarted plans to curb gun rights during the recently adjourned legislative session, even as Oregon Democrats held a majority and thought they had momentum in the wake of the attacks. Those who want more restrictions say they aren’t giving up their fight, but the recent legislative losses have forced them to re-evaluate their strategy.
Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore said a ballot proposal might be the best option to pass gun control laws, since lawmakers have proven unlikely to do so. To his point, Oregon voters approved the state’s current background check requirements.
“The gun lobby doesn’t have to spend a lot of money in Oregon” to defeat firearms restrictions, Moore said. In the West, he said, many see gun ownership as a way of life, and “the culture argument is very strong.”
The state’s rural-urban split also serves to makes gun rights a particularly thorny issue for lawmakers, especially those representing divided districts.
Politically, it’s better for them to sidestep the topic altogether, Moore said, explaining that for many voters gun control is not a priority, regardless of their party affiliation. On the other side, the minority who vote based on a candidate’s position on the constitutional right to bear arms are loud and intense enough to make a difference in an election.
“The Second Amendment has become in effect a code for how people feel about the role of government,” Moore said. “Because of that, if you feel the government is intruding too much in your life, the Second Amendment is something you’ll defend.”
Those affected by the Clackamas Town Center shooting are joining the debate in hopes of finding a middle ground between gun rights groups and gun control advocates.
“It’s not the guns, per se,” said Robert Yuille whose wife, Cindy, was one of two people killed by the gunman in the attack.
Yuille and his stepdaughter support universal background checks and a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons, plans that failed recently. But they also are pitching a narrow set of measures that would require gun owners to lock up their weapons and hold them liable for crimes committed with their firearms
“Maybe that could have prevented my mom from being killed,” said Jenna Passalacqua.
Authorities say Jacob Roberts stole an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from a friend before the mall rampage. Roberts killed himself in the attack.
Yuille and Passalacqua said they were disappointed but not surprised that the legislature didn’t pass new restrictions.
“I truly think people are waiting to see some changes,” Passalacqua said. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy ... but we’re prepared for that.”
Still, some groups want to continue to apply pressure to lawmakers. Penny Okamoto, director of Ceasefire Oregon, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce gun violence, said the 2013 session was just the beginning.
“The fact that the Oregon Legislature didn’t vote on these bills is firing people up even more,” she said.
Okamoto said her organization is working on legislation for next year’s session that would require background checks on private sales, even though such a plan failed this session. Several polls show that nearly 90 percent of Americans favor universal background checks.
Oregon already requires criminal background checks on firearm transactions at gun shows, the result of a 2000 ballot initiative spearheaded by Portland Democrat Sen. Ginny Burdick, a longtime backer of gun-control legislation.
No matter the strategy, gun control supporters face an uphill climb.
“Some freak goes into a school and shoots up” a classroom full of children, said Kevin Starrett, director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, speaking of the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “That’s what we started the session with, and even that didn’t make it happen.”