SALEM — Legislative efforts to tighten gun control in Oregon cleared an important hurdle Thursday when a Senate committee approved a package of bills crafted in the wake of the Newtown school killings and an Oregon mall shooting spree that occurred three days earlier.
The vote came one day after legislation to extend federal background checks on almost all national gun sales proved too high a hurdle for the U.S. Senate.
The Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee passed, on a 3-2 party-line vote, four bills that would expand background checks and add new restrictions on carrying firearms. The bills next move to the Senate floor.
The bills face a tough path to the 16 votes needed to pass the Senate, where Democrats have a slim 16-14 edge. Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson, of Scappoose, said she’ll vote against all of them, so proponents will need support from at least one Republican.
In Oregon, gun legislation is as contentious an issue as in many other parts of the country.
“Exactly what we’re seeing at the congressional level ... you see the same dynamic here,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University.
Moore said the gun-control measures present a difficult decision for some state lawmakers because gun ownership is deeply embedded in Oregon culture, especially in rural and coastal parts of the state.
Forty percent or more of Oregon households own guns, and nearly 170,000 people have county-issued licenses to carry concealed handguns.
The proposed legislation would expand background checks to cover private gun sales and transfers, exempting exchanges between family members, including domestic partners. It would also prohibit licensed gun owners from openly carrying firearms in public buildings, allow school districts to ban firearms on school grounds, and require concealed-weapons permit applicants to take a course taught by a live instructor. A provision requiring applicants for concealed-weapons permits to pass a firing range test was dropped.
Amid opposition from gun-rights groups, key lawmakers had earlier decided to abandon efforts to pass a ban on military-style rifles and on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Those proposals were made after a deadly mall shooting in suburban Portland in December and the Newtown school shooting, which occurred three days later.
Democratic Sens. Floyd Prozanski of Eugene, Jackie Dingfelder of Portland and Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay supported the bills advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee. GOP Sens. Betsy Close of Albany and Jeff Kruse of Roseburg opposed them.
Roblan, a former high school principal, said it was a difficult decision. He said amendments to the original bills, especially allowing school districts to choose if they want to prohibit guns on school grounds, helped bring him around in support of the legislation.
“It took me a long time to actually get them to a place ... that made me comfortable with the four bills,” he said. He said he will support the amended bills in a floor vote.