IT'S ILLEGAL in Oregon for anyone with a criminal record or commitment to a mental health institution to own firearms. It's also illegal for someone in those circumstances to attempt to own firearms. But until recently, whenever someone failed a background check aimed at preventing potentially dangerous people from acquiring weapons, the Oregon State Police (OSP) would rarely follow up.
Governor John Kitzhaber, prompted by one of the Oregon Legislature's most powerful Republicans, has quietly introduced a new policy aimed at changing that, the Mercury has learned. Kitzhaber is now requiring the OSP, which conducts screenings of people seeking to purchase firearms, to investigate every time someone tries to buy a gun from a dealer and fails a background check.
That effort—which the governor's office has pointedly hoped to play down—began in June. It was first reported by the Northwest News Network, citing gun rights advocates. But already, the reaction from both advocates and opponents of gun control is providing a glimpse into a larger, looming battle over how the state regulates firearms.
Melissa Navas, a spokeswoman for the governor's office, says the new policy followed discussions held by lawmakers in recent legislative sessions—when pro-gun-control lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to pass legislation that would expand background checks for all kinds of firearms sales. Oregon law requires background checks only for sales through dealers and gun shows.
Such checks are not required for sales between individuals, which critics say is a gaping loophole that allows the wrong people to access firearms.
When lawmakers debated having universal background checks, the gun lobby argued it would be ineffective—pointing out that there was rarely any follow-up from law enforcement when someone attempted to purchase a firearm but was blocked because of a history of criminal behavior or mental illness. Yet the Oregon Firearms Federation, which bills itself as "Oregon's only no-compromise gun lobby," has come out against having state police follow up on failed background checks, calling it "Kitzhaber's jihad."
"It sounds like a great idea until you realize that most denials have nothing to do with felons or criminal behavior," says Kevin Starrett, the group's executive director.
Starrett says background checks sometimes fail for innocuous reasons, like incorrectly entered information. He says he's heard from four people who've had background checks fail for no clear reason and then had OSP troopers dispatched to question them.
None of the OSP investigations he's aware of has resulted in an arrest. He says local police are better suited for this task, and the entire policy has been a "miserable failure" that he believes is a prelude to another attempt at instituting universal background checks.
But in an email exchange, OSP spokesman Lieutenant Gregg Hastings says troopers have been looking into about five failed background checks a day since June 17. Some of those cases have been referred to local district attorneys or resulted in arrests and citations, he says.
This new policy of investigating failed background checks was prompted, in part, by a request from Ted Ferrioli, the state Senate Republican leader. OSP didn't investigate failed checks previously because it wasn't clear if OSP had the legal authority. Then, in May, Ferrioli sent a letter to Kitzhaber explaining that a legal analysis conducted for the Legislature found that OSP does, in fact, have that power.
Gun control advocates Penny Okamoto, board vice president for Ceasefire Oregon, and state Senator Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, credit Ferrioli, an Eastern Oregon Republican with a strong gun rights record, for taking the initiative.
Burdick says she's heartened that gun control legislation, which will be introduced when lawmakers meet in 2015, might have bipartisan support.
Michael Gay, the communications director for Senate Republicans, says Ferrioli first wants to see existing gun laws enforced. Gay also says he doesn't know enough about future legislation to say whether Ferrioli would support it.
State Senator Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who led the last push for expanded background checks, was also surprised by Ferrioli's letter, given Republicans' reluctance to enhance any state agency's authority. However, Prozanski speculates it might be part of a strategy to prevent future gun control legislation.
Both OSP and Kitzhaber's office have been hush-hush about announcing the new policy, and were tight-lipped about providing details to the Mercury. Gun control advocates applaud the change, which they say is aimed at better enforcing the state's gun laws, and are unsure why there wasn't more fanfare.
"They should be shouting it from the rooftops," says Burdick.
Burdick was reluctant to comment on the motives of the OSP and the governor. But she noted her own history, having taken plenty of heat from gun control opponents who have filled up her inbox with combative emails.
"As someone who has been in the firing range," she says, "I can understand how people might want to avoid the bullying tactics used by the gun lobby."