Pro-Second Amendment activist Jesse Bonifer of Athena wants the oversight of Constitutionally-protected gun rights to become local.
“We’re trying to bring everything back to the county level,” he said, “and have it checked by the people who are actually policing it.”
Bonifer headed up the effort that placed Measure No. 30-128 Umatilla County Second Amendment Preservation Ordinance on the local ballot for the Nov. 6 election. The proposal would restrict Umatilla County from using resources to enforce state or federal laws that will infringe on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Chad Jacobs, a Portland attorney, said the measure also designates the sheriff as “the guy to decide if it’s unconstitutional or not.”
Jacobs is an attorney with the firm Beery Elsner Hammond, which works with the intersection of local, state and federal constitutional issues. He said these proposals, in large part, define what the county does with public money.
“I would frame it as this is a statement of policy for the county to decide how they want to prioritize the use of their resources,” Jacobs said. “I think it’s completely legal for a local government to say here is where we put our resources.”
In that vein, the ordinance is like other policy or funding decisions. But, Jacobs said, there are problems of enforcement.
Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan said he had discussed implementing a similar rule with the board of commissioners a few months ago, after finding out that some other Oregon counties are proposing ordinances that place oversight of gun rights in local control. Columbia County has collected enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot next month, and some counties, like Wallowa and Wheeler, got an ordinance passed through the board of county commissioners.
“I’m certainly very supportive of our Second Amendment rights,” Rowan said. “I don’t think our forefathers would appreciate people meddling with the words they defined as important to the people of this country.”
He said he feels there is a degree of uncertainty about those rights, especially around the anniversary of the Las Vegas mass shooting, where a shooter claimed the lives of 58 people and injured nearly 500.
“That always spurs added conversation in regard to the right to bear arms,” he said.
Violating the ordinance carries a maximum fine of $2,000 for an individual or $4,000 for a corporation. Jacobs questioned what happens if the sheriff violates the ordinance. The provision only gives power to the sheriff, he said, and it is unlikely the county is going to cite itself.
On the other hand, he said, the county commissioners could make budget decisions to compel the sheriff’s office to enforce the local law, but that’s all hypothetical.
Bonifer said he could not come up with a quick example of a violation, but this law would not mean the sheriff is knocking on doors to see if there are violations. Rather, he said, someone would have to report a violation to the sheriff’s office to trigger an investigation.
If the sheriff looked into the matter and decided to take no action, Bonifer said, that would be between the person who made the report and the sheriff. Like Jacobs, Bonifer said he did not see the county citing itself.
Rowan said he and his deputies swear to uphold all parts of the constitution, and the Second Amendment is no exception.
“If there are alleged violations of any part of the constitution, we will thoroughly investigate them,” he said.
Bonifer said he sees no immediate threat to gun rights in Umatilla County, but that could change. He said people are moving here from large cities and California, and they could bring more liberal political views, so the local law would protect gun rights from what could happen.
“The real thing that I would like people to take away from this is it’s our constitutional rights, and it’s up to us to keep them,” Bonifer said, “and not anybody else.”
Jayati Ramakrishnan contributed to this story.