The Unloaded Barrel 

Tough Questions Tangle Mayor's Gun Laws

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STANDING OUTSIDE city hall on Monday, March 21, between a pair of purple banners that said "Gun Free Zone," Mayor Sam Adams nodded solemnly and got emotional while preachers, activists, and victims of violence made the case for fixing America's broken gun background-check system.

Then it was Adams' turn to speak. While demanding more action from Salem and Washington, DC, Adams briefly alluded to his own set of five local gun laws—including new provisions that make it a city crime to carry a loaded weapon, and punishments for gun owners who fail to report lost firearms or make it easy for kids to get them.

"No longer is this city taking half measures or half steps," Adams thundered to the small crowd, gathered under a gentle rain.

And yet, nearly four months after Adams moved his reforms through the city council, implementation of those laws remains—at best—only half finished.

The package's most controversial and widely touted elements—exclusion zones for gun-crime convicts and curfews for younger offenders—are on the books but have yet to be enforced. And despite the mayor's emphatic rhetoric, his office remains far from solving a series of constitutional and logistical issues that have held the new laws up.

"We're still evaluating," says Amy J. Ruiz, Adams' spokeswoman, noting her boss wants to push ahead "as soon as possible."

Among the unsolved questions:

How broad should the city's exclusion list be? Adams has not yet ruled out poring over court files and sending exclusion notices to gun convicts who were already on parole when the city's law was approved. But finding those offenders, and deciding who qualifies, will be costly and time consuming—and could prompt civil-rights litigation.

The city is expected to partner with Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, although the precise relationship remains under negotiation.

"I would certainly hope they would do it from new convictions," says Dr. T. Allen Bethel of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, a longtime skeptic of the exclusion zones. "That's not just, to take what is a new law and make it applicable to someone who's already had 'justice served' and determined."

It's also unknown whether any list, either based on new or old convictions, would be made public.

How will the zones be enforced? The city has created three zones—downtown, in North/Northeast Portland, and a small one on the far Eastside ["Not Holding Their Fire," News, Nov 18, 2010]. While any cop could arrest someone for lingering in a zone—provided they aren't headed to school or to a social services agency, among other exemptions—the Portland Police Bureau wants its gang and gun officers to take the lead. The thinking is they would know better than the average patrol cop who ought to be in or out.

It's a sensitive concern for many in the African American community who worry about racial profiling.

"We do not want officers who aren't aware of the list of people to use [the law] as a general investigatory tool," says David Woboril, the deputy city attorney advising the mayor's office on the laws.

• Will Multnomah County actually prosecute violations? Last fall, District Attorney Mike Schrunk announced, because of budget cuts, that many misdemeanor cases would be prosecuted as "violations," meaning tickets instead of stiffer penalties. And exclusion zone violations still amount to a trespassing charge. Whether a charge for violating an exclusion should be treated differently than one for sleeping on someone's front step—and whether a defense attorney might seize on that discrepancy—is something Schrunk's office will need to mind.

"We're interested. We want to participate and be helpful," says Rod Underhill, Schrunk's top deputy. "We intend to review the cases and weave them into the framework of our existing prosecutions."

• When might any cases actually come forward? So far, not even the three less-controversial laws being enforced—on loaded weapons, stolen or lost guns, or giving guns to kids—have resulted in any criminal charges.

And officials are hesitant to offer even a tentative timeline for when the exclusion laws will be ready.

"I won't even hazard a guess," Woboril says. "It always takes longer than you want."

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