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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Background Check Bill Awaiting Vote

Michael Saechang
Flickr -
A bill in the Oregon legislature would require criminal background checks for most private gun sales.

People who support expanding background checks to include private gun sales in Oregon have tried for three years in a row to get their proposal through the legislature.

Their efforts are poised to go further than ever before. The Oregon Senate could vote as soon as Tuesday on just such a measure.

An undue burden?

Back in February, a county chapter of the National Rifle Association was holding a fundraising dinner one Friday evening. To entice people to come, the group gave away some guns. Oregon state Senator Kim Thatcher entered the drawing.

"I was lucky enough to win a raffle, which was a little .22 pistol,” she said.

But her luck ran out when she tried to claim her prize.

"I filled out all the paperwork to do a background check and I couldn't take home the gun that night because the background check didn't go through,” Thatcher said. “So I had to go pick it up later."

Thatcher's not sure why her background check didn't clear right away. The Oregon State Police say about 5 percent of firearms background checks are delayed, though it said the vast majority are either approved or rejected within minutes.

Thatcher, a Republican, said the delay in getting her gun wasn’t a big deal. But she said the background checks measure could create a hardship, especially for rural Oregonians who would have to go to a registered firearms dealer to complete the transaction.

"There are a lot of situations where it could really create an undue burden for law-abiding citizens,” Thatcher said. “There are people who might not be able to get together with a willing dealer.”

‘Loophole’ vs ‘freedom’

But supporters say requiring people who sell guns to strangers they meet on the internet should have some extra hurdles to clear. Democratic state Senator Ginny Burdick has been pushing for the bill since the first time it was introduced in 2013. She called it “a public safety measure.”

Oregon's current law requires background checks for guns bought from a dealer or at a gun show. Burdick said the exception for private sales is a loophole.

"This is how criminals can easily get guns and they don't usually do positive things with those guns,” Burdick said.

Gun owners like Will Hansen flocked to the state capitol this month to testify against the measure.

"I don't call that a loophole,” he said. “I call that freedom."

Another opponent of the proposal, Micky Garus, told lawmakers he simply wouldn't comply with the law if it passed. That prompted Democratic Senator Sara Gelser to ask Garus this question:

"So you're declaring here that if the legislature were to pass a law requiring background checks to keep guns from being sold to felons and domestic abusers, you would sell guns to felons and domestic abusers without a background check?” she asked.

"No ma’am,” Garus said. “I'm not going to allow you to bait me."

Garus said if criminals really want a gun, they'd find other ways to get one. Supporters of the proposal said they know the law would not prevent all gun crime. But they hope lawmakers agree to give background checks a greater role in possibly preventing some gun violence.

If the measure is signed into law, Oregon would join Washington in requiring background checks for private gun sales. Washington voters approved an initiative to require that in 2014.