Oregon’s newest gun control effort came from the best of intentions, nourished by lawmakers’ affection for one of their own. Sadly, it fails the safety-versus-rights test because it is too broad and too vague.
Nevertheless, it passed in both houses, and the governor is expected to sign it.
The bill was launched by Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, who lost his veteran son to suicide last year. It was promoted as a way to help suffering veterans and others contemplating suicide by taking guns away. In support of the bill, Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, told colleagues that 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides.
At first glance, Senate Bill 719 looks as if it could gain wide support even among committed defenders of Second Amendment gun rights. And indeed, several legislators who voted against the bill — including Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte — said they thought a narrower bill could have won their support.
The details tell the story.
The bill allows a law enforcement officer or household member to seek a court ruling to block a person from possessing, owning or purchasing a “deadly weapon.” The petitioner who asks for the “extreme risk protection order” must present “clear and convincing evidence” that the person in question “presents a risk in the near future, including an imminent risk, of suicide or of causing physical injury to another person.”
No one, however, would speak on behalf of the “respondent,” who would not be notified of the proceedings until after the order was issued.
Once issued, the order stands for one year, unless the respondent requests a hearing and by “clear and convincing evidence” proves he or she is not a risk. In other words, the respondent is presumed guilty and must prove his or her innocence, with the attendant legal and emotional costs. The petitioner can also request such a hearing.
There’s a 24-hour gap between the respondent learning of the order and having to give up the weapons. That sounds like 24 hours of dramatically escalated risk.
No mental health expertise is required at the hearing. In fact, the law states: “The court may not include in the findings any mental health diagnosis or any connection between the risk presented by the respondent and mental illness.”
Other issues of concern include:
• The definition of weapon is vague enough to include ceremonial swords, antique bayonets, maybe kitchen knives or baseball bats.
• The bill lacks specific guidance or protection for officers who would have to confiscate the weapons, raising questions about searches and other items that might be discovered.
• The provisions apply to violence beyond suicide, and ask judges to consider issues such as prior DUIs, attempts to purchase weapons, or recent use of controlled substances, among others.
Despite the best of intentions, the bill opens the door for myriad unintended consequences and rights violations, with little assurance it will reduce suicide or harm to others. A narrower bill could have gained wider support and avoided likely legal challenges.