For years, Rev. W. J. Mark Knutson, pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church, held services at his red brick church in Northeast Portland following mass shootings in the US—ringing the church’s bell again and again for lives lost in the country’s gun violence epidemic.
Those services took a toll—and inspired Knuston to make a deeper commitment to memorialize those killed. In 2016, Knuston helped pull together a group of more than one hundred faith leaders and community members to begin discussing how to advocate for stricter gun control measures in Oregon.
“We informally began in the summer of 2016, and we had conversations,” Knuston said. “Then Parkland came.”
That shooting, and the youth activism it spurred, kicked the group’s effort into high gear. The result is Measure 114, a ballot proposal backed by an array of faith and community leaders which, if passed in November, would give Oregon one of the strongest gun control laws in the country.
Oregonians are currently not required to obtain a permit to purchase a firearm, only to carry a concealed weapon. Measure 114 would require everyone to pass a gun safety training course and go through a background check in order to receive a permit allowing them to purchase a firearm. The measure would also ban the future sale and possession of magazines of over ten rounds.
Opposition to Measure 114 has primarily come from conservatives who argue that the gun safety and permitting requirements the measure would enact would make it virtually impossible for people to quickly purchase firearms. The National Rifle Association has warned that the measure, if passed, would “erode the Second Amendment,” and some have argued that the measure as written is unconstitutional.
But skepticism about the measure has also come from the political left—including from people who generally support strengthening gun laws. That’s because, under Measure 114, people would be required to get their firearm ownership permit from a law enforcement official, like a police chief or sheriff.
For people like Athul Acharya, executive director of the civil rights organization Public Accountability, that’s a non-starter.
“The best world is the world in which almost no one has a gun,” Acharya said. “The worst world is one in which the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have guns, and no one else has a gun. This measure, I think, gets us closer to that world.”
Given the racist history of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) and other local law enforcement organizations across the state, Acharya and others worry that Measure 114 would make it more difficult for communities of color to get the permits necessary to carry firearms.
They’re also concerned that, given the extensively documented ties between law enforcement and far right groups, police chiefs and sheriffs could discriminate against applicants on a political basis: that applicants with far right politics could be approved, for instance, while applicants who have associated themselves with antifascist movements could be turned down.
In 2018, PPB used a Proud Boys meme in a training slideshow, which triggered questions from the US Department of Justice (DOJ). The bureau has also been frequently criticized for its laissez-faire approach to policing members of the far right during demonstrations in the city as compared with its heavy-handed policing of racial justice and police accountability protests.
“Given the undisputed bias of police against folks who are BIPOC, poor, part of the LGBTQ2SIA+ community, and/or have leftist politics, Measure 114 would be a nightmare for all of these groups,” wrote Quinn, a Polk County resident who opposes the measure and declined to give their last name out of concern for their safety, in an email to the Mercury.
Some law enforcement officials have endorsed Measure 114. Others have raised concerns that it'll strain department resources. Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell has not taken a position on the measure.
Acharya said that he would be more comfortable with the proposal if permitting power sat with a body like the DMV—a more neutral organization that's primarily focused on bureaucratic work. As it’s written, Acharya is urging people to vote no.
“I think this measure is well-intentioned,” Acharya said. “I probably agree on most things with the people who wrote it. I wish it were something that I could vote for… but the worst of all worlds is the world in which the bad guys have guns and the good guys don’t.”
Knutson, who is a member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance that is party to a DOJ settlement with PPB over department abuses, said that he understands why some are concerned about the law enforcement role in Measure 114.
“We know the history,” he said. “We’re not blind to the history. We were out there marching two summers ago, and always, to change what is and to tear down white supremacy and racism… The key is implementation.”
Knutson said the data from other programs and states suggests that the concern about law enforcement bias in the permitting process is more of a concern in theory than it is in practice.
Measure 114’s enforcement mechanism is modeled on Oregon’s existing concealed carry permit law, which requires people who want to carry a weapon in such a way to obtain a Concealed Handgun License from their county sheriff. The enforcement of that law has people like the Measure 114 campaign’s communications director Anthony Johnson optimistic.
“There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that concealed handgun licenses have been issued in a discriminatory manner, and it’s basically the same system for concealed handgun licenses that it will be under Measure 114,” Johnson said.
To that end, Measure 114 has an equity committee advising its work. Johnson said the decision between saving lives and inaction shouldn’t be difficult to make.
“Every concern that [people] have about the permitting process has to be weighed against the gun violence that is being inflicted on all communities across Oregon, but disproportionately communities of color,” Johnson said. “It’s clear that something needs to be done.”
Proponents of Measure 114 point to the effect that a similar law has had in Connecticut, the site of one of the country’s deadliest mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, where a licensing law led to a 28 percent drop in the gun homicide rate and a 33 percent drop in the gun suicide rate. When a similar licensing law was repealed in Missouri, the gun homicide and suicide rates surged.
With gun violence across the country on the rise since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many share Johnson’s sense of urgency.
“It’s well-intentioned for us to sort of hope for a [better alternative to this plan], but the biggest thing we’ve seen over time is that equity is action,” said Miles Pendleton, president of the Eugene-Springfield chapter of the NAACP. “Now in this moment, now that we have an opportunity before us, the greatest mistake we could make is assuming that an opportunity is going to come again.”
Knutson said that in addition to a public rulemaking process that will solicit public input if the measure passes, the legislation includes an annual equity review. The state legislature will also have oversight power to make changes to the law if discrimination issues arise.
But that kind of a process could take years, and the instability of the political situation in the US means that if there were discrimination issues in the enforcement of Measure 114, they could arise quickly.
Following the murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, for instance, applications for concealed carry permits in Multnomah County skyrocketed. They spiked again in the weeks following the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 of last year.
Proponents of Measure 114 are confident that the measure is on track to pass in November. The campaign to pass the measure has out-raised and out-spent the campaign to defeat it, and an Oregonian poll published in October found 51 percent of respondents in favor of the measure and just 39 percent opposed.
Backers of Measure 114 already have one encouraging sign about the enthusiasm around the measure: the fact that it made the ballot at all, a feat which required organizers to collect 112,000 signatures over a period of months earlier this year.
“For the first time, the gun industry is going to be taken on in a very powerful way,” Knuston said. “We can be a bellwether for the country.”