A movement to pass substantial gun control legislation in Oregon, accelerated by the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has been stymied by the biggest player in pro-gun politics: the National Rifle Association (NRA). Although 67 percent of Americans support an assault weapons ban, the NRA, along with the Oregon Firearms Federation (OFF) and the Oregon Hunters Association (OHA), has derailed two voter-led efforts to get gun control legislation on the state’s November ballot.
Gun control advocates are pushing two major initiatives this fall. The first, currently named Initiative Petition (IP) 43, would ban the sale of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines in Oregon. The second, IP 44, would hold Oregon gun owners liable if an unsupervised minor uses their firearm, would mandate that gun owners lock up their firearm when it’s not in use, and fine gun owners who fail to report a stolen or missing firearm.
Gun rights advocates dislike IP 43 and 44 for an unsurprising reason: They believe the initiatives violate the Second Amendment.
To derail the petitions, these lobbyists have challenged the wording of the eventual measure titles—a seemingly trivial matter that, nonetheless, has allowed the them to significantly delay advocates’ attempts to get petitions on the ballot.
IP 43 and IP 44 are particularly vulnerable to these delaying tactics due to their relative newness. Many petitions for the November 2018 ballot were filed last year, but because the impetus for both IP 43 and IP 44—the Parkland shooting—occurred in February, both face a particularly tight timeline for ballot title approval before the cutoff for acquiring signatures.
For initiative petitions, the attorney general writes a draft for the title of the ballot measure, summarizing the measure’s purpose and action; citizens are then given a period of 10 days to submit comments on the title. To delay IP 43, gun control opponents sent over 1,000 comments to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. Though the comments are meant to address only the title of the ballot, many in this instance addressed problems critics had with the initiative itself.
Some gun control advocates believe the high number of comments were an attempt to slow the process down. But Debra Royal, a spokesperson for the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, says that while the process wasn’t slower than usual, it’s “highly unusual” to get that many comments.
The attorney general’s office also allows a final appeal before the initiative heads to the ballot. In the case of IP 43, the gun lobby waited to file an appeal with the Oregon Supreme Court until the very last day—another attempt to delay the initiative. It worked: The group behind IP 43 is still waiting for the Oregon Supreme Court to rule on an appeal to their initiative.
“The gun lobby is just trying to run us out of time,” says Penny Okamoto, who works on the IP 43 campaign.
The court is expected to rule on the case this week, but it’s unclear what that could mean for IP 43. If the court gives the initiative a ballot title and allows it to move forward, the Secretary of State’s office will have three days to draft a template for the signatures. That leaves the IP 43 organizers with, at most, six days to get over 88,000 signatures. “If we can start by Friday [June 29], we know we can get it done,” says Pastor Mark Knutson, one of the IP 43 petitioners. “We’ve built an infrastructure that’s pretty amazing.”
With IP 44, gun rights advocates used the same tactics: Filing appeals to the Oregon Supreme Court against the petition on the last possible day and submitting over 400 comments during the initial stages of the ballot title process.
Despite gun rights advocates’ attempts at slowing the process down, IP 44 has had much more luck than the other petition—the Oregon Supreme Court ruled quickly in its favor on June 18, giving petitioners about three weeks to gather signatures.
But, despite the rapid ruling, the campaign organizers decided not to try gathering signatures for fear of failing to hit the required number in time.
“We figured it would be better to set a realistic goal and move forward with trying to get the legislature to act in 2019—or if that fails, go to the ballot in 2020,” says Jake Weigler, spokesman for IP 44. He says gun rights groups’ legal interventions are disingenuous. “There’s a clear pattern of [the gun lobby] not expecting to prevail in the arguments, but forcing the process to drag out the clock,” Weigler says.
IP 44 could be re-filed well ahead of the 2020 election—giving it much more time to go through the ballot title process. And despite their setbacks, Oregon’s gun control advocates think the tide is turning. Weigler notes that the NRA used to push for new freedoms for gun owners, like expanding concealed carry rights—but “now they’re on the defense.”
Still, every time gun rights advocates succeed in delaying votes and legislation, Weigler says, there’s a clear cost. “I know this policy could save lives,” he says, “and every day this policy is pushed back is more lives lost.”