Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, said four main gun control bills failed to move through the Senate during the 2013 legislative session due to an outpouring of opposition emails, letters and phone calls from Oregonians.
“I have never had another issue that brought so many emails. I received thousands and so did the other House members and Senators,” he said.
Huffman and other legislators wanted to address the problem of unstable individuals engaging in mass shootings by providing more funding for mental health services, particularly for at-risk youth. That was a priority of leadership, particularly Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who thought a “grand bargain” of tax increases and paring back expenses could seal the deal.
Courtney sought to dedicate as much as $40 million for mental health programs during the next biennium. He suggested covering that cost by raising some taxes, such as those on beer and wine.
GOP leaders proposed cutting programs that were less of a priority to come up with the capital but failed to gain support among Democrats.
The end result of the impasse was that $79 million was authorized to begin construction of a psychiatric hospital in Junction City. The state will then have to come up with an estimated $101 million per biennium to cover staffing and operational costs at the 174-bed facility.
Instead of moving forward with proposals to post veterans in schools or arm select teachers to defend against intruders, Huffman said an alternative plan was approved by both parties.
State officials agreed that new emergency guidelines should be developed to help educators and administrators protect students. As a result, the Oregon School Board Association is updating its safety manual that will be given to all 197 school districts in the state and cover everything from earthquakes to shooting incidents.
“The association is going to be dealing with this in a much more comprehensive way,” said Huffman.
He said the Department of Education is also seeking federal grants that will be used by school districts to develop and implement a safety plan.
“We are legally and morally responsible to do everything in our power to keep our kids and school employees safe,” he said.
Gun control advocates believed the time was right when legislators convened in February to ban some weapons and further regulate ownership of firearms, said Huffman.
A little less than two months before the session began, Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, opened fire on shoppers in the Clackamas Town Center Mall, about 11 miles southeast of downtown Portland. He killed two people and injured a teenage girl before taking his own life.
Two days after the Dec. 12 incident in Oregon, Adam Lanza, 20, fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. He killed himself as emergency responders closed in.
Democrats held the majority in both the House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office, and Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, led the charge to push through bills that required universal background checks and bans on large-capacity ammunition and high-powered rifles. She and other members of her party believed tighter laws would result in less violence and better protect public safety. They said making it more difficult for unstable people to own weapons and limiting the fire-power of those that were available was a better way to protect public safety.
GOP leaders countered those arguments by pointing out that Lanza and Roberts, as with other gunmen in mass shootings, did not own the weapons they used to kill others. They said gun laws already on the books did not stop the two men, but armed shoppers or teachers might have. They said millions of innocent people should not be punished for those acts of murder by having their Constitutional rights stripped away.
Huffman stated before the session even began that he would not vote in favor of any legislation that sought to curb gun rights. He found almost all of the constituents in District 59 — and beyond — who contacted him were in agreement with that stand.
He said Burdick and other Democratic legislators in favor of gun control could never get the 16 votes needed to pass a gun bill.
Huffman said plans are still afoot next session to gain a foothold on gun control. Advocates plan to take small steps, such as pitching proposals for background checks on private sales, requiring people to lock up firearms and holding them liable for crimes committed with their guns. If these are successful, they are likely to move forward with even greater regulation.
No matter what gun control advocates propose, Huffman said they face a battle to get new laws in place because Americans strongly value the rights bestowed on them by the founding fathers.
“People will just have to be watchful about what comes next,” he said.