SALEM — All firearms would be barred from state buildings, and local governments would have the option of barring them from their own buildings, under a bill that is halfway through the Oregon Legislature.

The Senate voted 16-7 on Thursday, March 25, for Senate Bill 554. It goes to the House after a debate lasting more than three hours and reflecting the national arguments about gun regulation.

Majority Democrats defeated a Republican-proposed substitute that would have affirmed the constitutional right to bear arms and required a study of gun-free zones. They also rejected seven other Republican motions that would have delayed or killed the bill.

The bill would bar about 300,000 holders of concealed handgun licenses from bringing their firearms into state buildings, including the Oregon Capitol. Some places, such as state courts, already are off-limits.

Cities, counties, schools and other local governments would have the option under the bill to bar firearms from their buildings, although adjacent garages and parking lots are excluded. A ban also can apply to airport terminals; the federal Transportation Security Administration oversees boarding areas and the shipment of firearms in stored luggage.

Violations would be considered a Class C felony, maximum penalties for which are a $125,000 fine and five years in prison, although unlikely to be levied on a first offense.

The bill also would raise initial fees for concealed handgun licenses from $50 to $100, and renewals from $50 to $75.

The debate got so heated that Senate President Peter Courtney — who apologized earlier for a comment about “crushing opponents” that referred to Oregon opponents in the NCAA basketball tournaments — said, “People are getting angry about this measure from all sides.”

But it was clear that Democrats had the votes to prevail, rejecting Republican motions to send the bill to various committees.

The Senate Judiciary Committee spent four hours Feb. 22 listening to testimony, much of it from gun rights advocates opposed to the bill, and passed it on a 4-3 party-line vote a few days later.

What supporters said

The bill’s chief sponsor and floor manager was Sen. Ginny Burdick, a Democrat from Portland and a longtime supporter of gun regulation.

Burdick said under a state law dating back to 1969, possession of firearms in a public building is a felony unless that person has a concealed handgun license. But until 1989, when state law changed to require issuance of licenses to people who met specified standards, Burdick said sheriffs had broad discretion over who could obtain licenses. Oregon now has about 300,000 people with such licenses.

“The events of 2020 are a flashing red light that we need to do something,” Burdick said.

She referred to armed invasions of the Michigan Capitol in Lansing — several men were arrested in an attempt to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. (Anti-lockdown protesters also breached the Oregon Capitol during a special session Dec. 21, 2020, but they were confined to a vestibule and police ejected them.)

Burdick said the bill gives local governments flexibility, rather than impose a state policy.

“I think you are safer without a gun; the National Rifle Association thinks you are safer with a gun,” she said. “Neither of us gets to decide. The local community gets to decide. That’s as it should be.”

Sen. James Manning Jr., a Democrat from Eugene and a 24-year Army veteran, said the bill is consistent with a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognizes an individual right to bear firearms under the Second Amendment. The decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, also allows regulation of firearms in sensitive places, such as schools and government buildings.

“This bill does not take anyone’s freedoms from them,” Manning said.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat from Eugene and Judiciary Committee chairman, said even Tombstone, Arizona, barred guns from town limits back in 1880 as violence grew.

What opponents said

But Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, argued the opposite. He said the bill would deprive thousands of concealed handgun license holders from being able to defend themselves. He also said he could think of only one instance — a 2019 shooting at a Eugene middle school that resulted in police killing a male parent involved in a custody dispute — when there was a conflict.

“What we have here is a bill in search of a problem,” Knopp said.

Knopp said if supporters were confident that it had public support, they should vote to put it on a statewide ballot. (A recent survey conducted by DHM Research of Portland indicated 59% support for such a measure, 31% opposition, with most support in the sample from the Portland area and Democrats; however, it mustered 49% support outside the Willamette Valley.)

A motion to that effect failed on a party-line vote.

Sen. Bill Hansell, a Republican from Athena and a former Umatilla County commissioner, said counties do not want the burden of having to decide whether firearms should be allowed in public buildings.

When Oregon voters are removing criminal penalties, including those for possession of small amounts of drugs other than marijuana, “we are criminalizing this,” Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said.

Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose was the lone Democrat to join six Republicans to oppose it. Four other Republicans — Dallas Heard of Roseburg, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, Art Robinson of Cave Junction and Kim Thatcher of Keizer, among the most conservative senators — chose not to attend the session and were considered absent.

Three other senators were officially excused, including Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas, now an independent, whose stepson took his own life by a firearm in 2016.

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