Democrats in Oregon’s congressional delegation renewed calls for Congress to take up federal gun control legislation following a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school on Tuesday, while the state’s lone Republican congressman remained silent.
Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader responded to detailed questions from the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday about the gun control legislation they support and what they’ll do to prevent another community from being torn apart by a mass shooting.
A spokesman for Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon, ignored two emails on Tuesday and Wednesday. Bentz also hasn’t addressed the Texas shooting on official channels or through social media, where he was complaining about border security in Texas hours before a gunman murdered 19 children and two teachers in a small city outside San Antonio.
The remaining members of Oregon’s congressional delegation expressed frustration with legislative obstacles to passing federal gun control laws. The U.S. House has passed two background check bills since 2021, but the Senate is unlikely to pass those bills or any others because of Republican opposition. Democrats hold 50 seats in the Senate and a tie-breaking vote in Vice President Kamala Harris, but the filibuster effectively requires 60 votes on controversial legislation.
“In order to address gun violence, we have to address that the Senate is a broken institution,” Merkley said. “We must reform the filibuster so critical gun safety bills have a pathway to be debated, voted on, passed, and signed into law.”
Wyden said changes to federal gun policy will ultimately result from grassroots pressure from Oregonians and others frustrated with Congress’s lack of action.
“I know most Oregonians and most Americans want the ache they feel in their hearts every time they see a mass shooting to translate into action,” he said. “That must happen, and I remain optimistic that it will.”
As a state, Oregon has more stringent laws than the rest of the nation. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group that formed after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, rates Oregon 11th in the nation for toughness and completeness of gun laws.
Oregon mandates background checks for all gun purchasers, including at gun shows, requires gun owners to securely store their firearms separate from ammunition when not in use and allows police or family members to petition a court to temporarily block someone’s access to guns. State law also allows college campuses to ban all guns, including those that could otherwise be legally carried and requires people convicted of violent offenses or who are the subject of restraining orders for domestic abuse to give up their guns.
Lift Every Voice Oregon, a faith-based organization, is seeking voter approval of more gun restrictions in November. The group is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to fire rapidly without pausing to reload. The initiative would also require any gun purchaser to first obtain a permit and pass a firearm safety training class. Gun owners would need to renew their permits every five years.
Oregon’s only congresswoman is a cosponsor of 14 gun control bills introduced since January 2021, including proposals to expand background checks, ban the sale of magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition and restore the ability for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to publicly release gun tracing data. Firearm tracing links guns found at crime scenes or otherwise recovered by law enforcement to the original seller and can be used to identify patterns in the kinds of guns used in crimes and where they originate.
A 2003 law prohibits that data from being released to anyone other than a prosecutor or law enforcement agency investigating a crime and prevents it from being used in academic studies or in civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers.
“My position has been consistent – we must pass legislation to stem the scourge of gun violence now,” Bonamici said. “Lives are at risk every day. We cannot bring back those who have been murdered, but we can prevent further tragedy by passing legislation.”
Bonamici has also advocated for expanding the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ portfolio and funding so the agency can take on so-called “ghost guns,” or guns privately manufactured that don’t have serial numbers and whose ownership can’t be traced. The rise of 3-D printing has made it easier to make such guns.
She called on President Joe Biden to nominate a national director of gun violence prevention to chair an interagency task force, saying that the “national epidemic” of gun violence demands a response from all of government, not just law enforcement.
Bentz did not respond to emails and has not publicly addressed the Texas shooting. He told Medford-based television station KTVL during an interview Wednesday that he protects Second Amendment rights and wanted to make sure schools are “appropriately protected,” though he did not elaborate on what that protection would look like.
As a state senator in 2019, Bentz joined 10 other Republicans in walking out of a legislative session to block passage of a proposed law that would have allowed firearms dealers to raise the minimum purchase age, required guns to be stored securely when not in use, allowed colleges and universities to ban firearms and restricted ghost guns.
Democrats in the legislative majority passed portions of that bill in the following years. Bentz also voted against legislation that otherwise passed that prohibits convicted stalkers from possessing firearms and allows a judge to prohibit a suicidal individual from possessing a gun.
Since his election to Congress in 2020, Bentz has voted against expanding background checks and co-sponsored a Republican proposal that would permit anyone allowed to carry a concealed weapon in one state to carry it in any other state.
Along with Bonamici, Blumenauer has cosponsored most recent gun control proposals in the U.S. House.
“Every elected official should have a plan for what they are doing to address gun violence,” he said. “Every American should ask their leaders what they’re doing to stop it. If the answer is ‘nothing,’ or ‘sending prayers,’ I leave it to the people to decide if that is a satisfactory answer.?”
His plan, laid out on his House website and reflected in bills he cosponsors, includes universal background checks for all gun purchases, banning assault weapons and removing barriers for academic research of gun violence.
A “heartbroken and enraged” DeFazio noted that a school shooting affected his own district more than 20 years ago. In 1998, a freshman at Thurston High School in Springfield, just 2 miles from DeFazio’s home, murdered his parents and then shot nearly 30 of his classmates, killing two.
“Over the past two decades, our society has changed dramatically and we have to evolve our laws to address and meet the needs of our fellow citizens today,” DeFazio said. “We have to pass new laws so our children are safe and protected at school. Our nation barely has time to process one mass shooting before the next one happens.”
DeFazio cosponsored both background check bills that have passed the House. On Thursday, he implored the Senate to take up those measures.
He said he also supports legislation to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity clips.
The two background check bills passed by the House and a proposed federal red flag law are important first steps, Schrader said. He doesn’t intend to introduce any additional legislation, but said he’s ready to work with colleagues on solutions.
“Senate Republicans are unlikely to come to the table in good faith to get these crucial pieces of legislation across the finish line,” he said. “I stand ready to work with my colleagues to find solutions and get common sense legislation to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.”
Schrader said the federal government should also provide more funding for schools to improve security, for the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence and to expand the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
On Tuesday, Wyden said the only adjectives he had left to describe yet another school shooting were “‘sick’ and ‘tired’ of conservative extremists blocking common-sense steps to reduce the risk of these atrocities ripping away the lives of children and leaving their families to grieve their devastating losses.”
Along with Merkley, Wyden has signed on to many Senate proposals to expand background checks, ensure people convicted of domestic abuse against an unmarried partner don’t have access to guns and require safe gun storage. Passing that legislation will reduce the risk of future shootings like the one in Texas, he said.
“As an Oregonian unfortunately familiar with our state’s list of mass shootings – Thurston High School, Clackamas Town Center, Umpqua Community College – I’ve fought long and hard to pass common-sense reforms that would reduce the risks of gun violence,” he said. “And as the proud holder of an ‘F’ grade from the (National Rifle Association), I’ll keep battling the NRA and its Republican enablers in the Senate to pass those reforms.”
An Umpqua Community College student killed an assistant professor and eight classmates in 2015. In 2012, a gunman wearing a horror movie mask shot and killed two people and wounded a third at the Clackamas Town Center mall outside of Portland in an apparently random act of violence.
Merkley said the Senate first has to reform its filibuster to have any chance at passing policies that could prevent a future mass shooting. After that, Congress must improve background checks, raise the minimum age to buy a gun, limit the capacity of ammunition magazines, restore a federal ban on military-style assault weapons, and ban ghost guns by requiring sellers of gun-making kits to comply with federal firearm safety regulations, he said.
“This is all obvious,” Merkley said. “We don’t need a magic technology or policy innovation, we just need a basic measure of human decency and compassion for school children in Uvalde whose last moments were full of terror, their classmates who will be forever traumatized by what they saw, their parents living through unspeakable grief, and the hundreds of thousands of other Americans whose lives are wrecked by this plague. Look those parents in the eye and do the right thing.”
He said while the steps might be obvious, it won’t be easy because of the political power of the gun lobby. The Justice Department, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is studying gun violence as a public health issue, all have a role, he said.