TECHNICALLY, Charlie Hales has been mayor of Portland for more than two weeks. But the title didn't become official—as in real—until the morning of Monday, January 14.

That's when Hales called in every major news outlet for his first-ever Very Important Press Conference—on a progressive and important (if locally impotent) subject: "common sense" gun control. But way more important? That was when Hales got into his first public sparring match with one of the leading lights of Portland's (small) crowd of conservatives: Lars Larson.

And these days, in Portland, you're not really the mayor until Larson takes over your event from the back of the room and makes it his own.

It didn't start out that way. In prepared remarks delivered from his desk to a tightly packed cluster of reporters (his office feigned surprise that a press conference on guns might draw a crowd), Hales tried to firmly put himself on record demanding federal and state action on guns.

Making note that his event marked the one-month anniversary of the Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooting—and, coincidentally, the first day of the 2013 legislative session—Hales read off a list of three sensible demands:

Background checks for purchasers, a ban on sales of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and, for the first time, federal sanctions for gun trafficking.

"Those are some common-sense changes we can make, even with the Second Amendment," Hales said. "Those are things we can do and should do."

That, however, marked Hales' high point. Larson was already fired up after city hall security made him show his card to get into the building. And the nanosecond after Hales opened it up for questions, the radio talker—holding a pro-gun, Starbucks-style coffee mug (and later claiming to be packing heat himself)—was ready to pounce.

Hales, failing to heed the example of his predecessor, Sam Adams, twice took the bait.

In one of those exchanges, Hales was inveighing that he has "yet to find a teacher who thinks it's a good idea" to arm up. ("Really?" Hales said of the idea.) Larson quibbled, comparing the idea to arming pilots. Hales tried to blow him off by asking if he, in fact, did know any teachers. Larson immediately replied that he knew of 1,000—because that's how many teachers, he says, signed a petition demanding the right.

But the other one was probably more vexing for Hales—and maybe revealing of the somewhat mushy nature of a mayor of a city staging a media scrum on an issue that's largely in the hands of powerbrokers several miles away.

Larson mentioned licensing and registering owners—a dog-whistle issue for the gun crowd—and Hales said he thought it was already the law. Larson protested. And when Hales asked Police Chief Mike Reese to step in, hoping he'd silence Larson, Reese defended his boss—but admitted the radio host was correct.

And so it went. Yes, Hales' message is a good one. But the back-and-forth probably hurt the optics of an event convened to make the mayor look responsive and passionate.

Which shows Hales still has a few things to learn about looking like the boss.