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With Court Ruling Expected, Gun Ban Advocates Will Try to Make History

Michael Saechang
Flickr -
File photo. Backers of a ban on semi-automatic, military-style weapons in Oregon hope to win permission to start collecting signatures soon.

With the window for submitting signatures closing fast, backers of a ban on semi-automatic, military-style weapons in Oregon might finally win permission to begin petitioning voters this week.

The Oregon Supreme Court has announced plans to issue an opinion Wednesday on final ballot language for Initiative Petition 43. That’s one of the final hurdles faith-based backers of the petition face before they begin a frantic push to collect more than 88,000 signatures by July 6.

“We are ready,” the Rev. Mark Knutson, one of the chief petitioners behind the ban, said Tuesday. “We have well over 1,000 people who’ve trained, there’s another 800 who’ve accessed our training.”

But every day’s delay reduces the likelihood Knutson’s Lift Every Voice coalition will be successful, and it’s still not clear when organizers might be able to start collecting signatures. Once the Supreme Court rules on a ballot title, the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office has up to three business days to approve official templates for signature gatherers to use.

Knutson says his group hopes the state office will expedite the process “so we can have the template by Friday.” The group plans to circulate petitions over the weekend at worship services around the state.

“If we don’t get it until Monday, then it’s a real stretch,” Knutson said. “No one’s done this in less than a few months.”

The gun control campaign is currently contemplating a window of a week or less.

If passed, IP 43 would make Oregon a leader in gun control laws nationwide. The measure would ban possession of what it terms “assault weapons” — a variety of firearms that span certain types of rifles, pistols and shotguns, depending on their features. The measure would also ban magazines that carry more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

People who own those items before the law took effect could still lawfully possess and use them, but they would have to register with the Oregon State Police and pass a background check. Otherwise, the weapons would need to be sold off, destroyed or surrendered.

Illegal possession of a regulated gun or magazine would be a class B felony.

The Supreme Court’s involvement in the ballot title stems from appeals from pro-gun groups, who take issue with ballot language crafted by the Oregon Department of Justice. In particular, they’ve questioned the use of the term “assault weapons” in the ballot title, arguing that the phrase has a connotation that doesn’t match up with the range of guns that would actually be regulated.

“The drafters of IP 43 employed a definition of ‘assault weapon’ that varies from any common understanding of the term,” Oregon Firearms Federation executive director Kevin Starrett wrote in one ballot title appeal. “A voter with particular concerns about AR-15 rifles would not know that IP 43 applies to various shotguns, hunting rifles and rimfire rifles.”

For its part, the DOJ has defended its use of assault weapons in the ballot title, though department lawyers wrote that the agency “agrees that the term ‘assault weapon’ means different things to different people.”

“Because of the breadth of the measure,” the DOJ wrote, “it is difficult to prepare a caption that accurately describes, without omission or oversimplification, the scope of its application.”

IP 43 is the lone gun-control measure still vying for a place on the November ballot. Last week, backers of a separate proposal announced they'd be discontinuing activity for this fall's election, instead pushing new laws in the future.

Both petitions were submitted in the wake of a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.