NEARLY 90 PEOPLE died in mass shootings in 2012. There's no making sense of this terror-inducing violence, but it seems like political will is finally building to address what's long been considered a politician's poison pill: gun control.
A federal task force led by Vice President Joe Biden is weighing several changes including an assault rifle ban and limitations on magazine cartridge sizes. But these federal efforts are probably dead on arrival, thanks to Republican obstructionists. And that's put some pressure on states and cities to step into the breach.
In Oregon, State Senator Ginny Burdick is pushing a bill to limit magazines to 10 rounds of ammunition. Currently, only four other states are considering, or have passed, limits on magazine size.
"It's good policy," Burdick says of the ammo limits, making clear that although the bill isn't a direct response to last year's notorious shootings at Clackamas Town Center or Sandy Hook Elementary, it is seen as a possible solution.
Gun control was one of Burdick's big issues when she ran for office. After speaking with many gun owners—many of whom had children—she found herself immersed in the issue and devised a bill using responses from a poll of gun owners.
"The key is for gun owners themselves to stand up," she says. "The real solution is to get rid of assault weapons."
But if that's not possible yet, then something like Burdick's ammo limits might be the next best thing, experts say.
"Magazine cartridges may be even more important than the assault rifle ban," says Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the national Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "If you look at mass shootings, they don't always use assault rifles and you can use high-capacity magazines in many guns."
If Oregon does get tougher on guns, it would mark a huge shift for the state. The Law Center ranks it as one of the nation's worst for gun control, behind states like California and New York that have their own bans on most assault weapons.
And there is some evidence that those bans work. Violent crime nationwide dipped after the 1994 federal assault-weapon ban took effect and stayed down in California, for example, even after the federal ban expired in 2004. In other states that border Mexico, homicide rates have jumped 40 percent.
Violent crime in Oregon has also plunged since 1994, and continues to fall. In fact, it's lower now than any time since 1975. But Portland has recently struggled with an increase in gang-related violence. While the Clackamas Town Center caught national headlines, gang-related shootings remain all too frequent.
That may be the true test of gun control reform. Detective Todd Teats said Portland saw 111 gang-related shooting or stabbing calls in 2012, up from 103 in 2011. As of last summer, the police bureau identified 807 people as gang members—although other estimates range from 2,000-10,000.
Last summer, in one nine-hour span, police responded to three gang-related shootings. More recently a seven- and 11-year-old brandished a loaded gun in an attempted car-jacking. And a 17-year-old had six guns hidden in a guitar case, three of which were purchased at a local flea market.
The city has tried to answer the surge. During his tenure, former Mayor Sam Adams re-created a gun crimes task force, passed a gun theft ordinance, and drew up gun crime exclusion zones (which have, like the drug exclusion zones, so far snared black Portlanders more often than whites). Last month, Mayor Charlie Hales announced the city would lobby Salem directly for more changes. But that takes time.
So, while they wait, Portlanders are working with what they have at hand. Mark Strong of 11:45, an organization that works with police to have young men with misdemeanors sit down for lunch with local community leaders, hopes that building strong connections today will prevent a felony tomorrow. "Kids just raise themselves," says Strong. "We're not the answer to the problem, we're just a small piece."