CRIMINALS, REJOICE! Anyone with a history of violent crime or domestic abuse who shows up at this month's gun show at the Expo Center can purchase a handgun. Oregon lawmakers politely call it a loophole: unlike licensed dealers, pesky background checks are not required for firearms peddlers at gun shows.

For the past few years, the matter floundered in the state legislature, tripped up by a small but determined band of pro-gun lobbyists. Frustrated, Senator Ginny Burdick decided to take the matter directly to Oregon voters.

"I didn't get elected to do ballot measures," explained Sen. Burdick. "But when we have one special interest blocking the process, that was what initiatives were intended to remedy."

With an overwhelming 86 percent of polled Oregonians supporting background checks at gun shows, the voter initiative seemed like a foolproof plan. But, so far, the same nemesis gun lobbyists that killed the bill in the legislature are keeping the matter off November's ballot.

In January, Oregon Gun Owners, one of two pro-gun groups in the state, corralled the potential ballot measure into the state's court system. The matter languished there for four months as justices reviewed the initiative's language and title.

In mid-April, the ballot measure re-emerged largely unscarred, but with little time to gather enough signatures to place it on November's ballot. With a looming July 7 cut-off date, Burdick has only gathered one-quarter of the 80,000 signatures required. This week, Burdick chucked an earlier pledge and will begin to use paid signature gatherers.Meanwhile, Oregon Gun Owners have drafted a second voter initiative restricting firearm sales at gun shows. This one requires background checks but does not require maintaining a database of gun- owners. Yet this initiative also remains far short of the requisite signatures. This suits John Nichols, Director of Oregon Gun Owners, just fine, as the organization would prefer the matter stay out of the hands of voters and in the legislature. "We would be perfectly happy if neither (initiative) made the ballot," said Nichols.