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Oregon Gun-Control Proposal Might Be Out Of Time To Make Ballot

M.O. Stevens
Wikimedia Commons -

The lone gun-control measure vying for the November ballot has likely run out of time.

The Oregon Supreme Court Wednesday announced it would not certify ballot language for Initiative Petition 43, a proposed ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons in Oregon. Instead, the court referred draft ballot language back to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum for revision, finding substantial flaws in her office’s last attempt.

It’s likely the final straw for the faith-backed Lift Every Voice coalition, which had been counting on a network of hundreds of volunteers across the state to collect more than 88,000 valid signatures in a week or less. The deadline for submitting signatures is July 6.

Without certified ballot language, the campaign can’t begin collecting signatures. And with the matter back before the Attorney General’s office, it’s unclear an adequate title could even be crafted by July 6.

“That’s not what we wanted by any means,” said Rev. Mark Knutson, one of the chief petitioners behind the initiative, when OPB informed him of the ruling Wednesday morning. “We really wanted it now for our children’s sake.”

If passed, IP 43 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 Attorney General’s initial attempt at crafting ballot language for the proposal drew an unprecedented response from gun owners around the state—more than 1,000 comments. And when the state revised the language, several pro-gun groups appealed the matter to the Supreme Court.

Among other things, they argued the suggestion that “assault weapons” would be banned under the measure was misleading since there’s not a shared understanding of what that term means. They also argued that the ballot language did not sufficiently explain the extent of the restrictions that would go into effect.

In its opinion Wednesday, the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with the challengers on many of those points.

“We do agree (as does the Attorney General) that different voters reasonably could draw different meanings from the term ‘assault weapons’—some might think that it refers to only military-style weapons,” the court wrote, directing the Attorney General’s office to include more accurate language.

The decision to kick the ballot title back for revision is something of a worst-case scenario for Knutson and the other faith leaders, who for three months have been building a coalition to land the matter on the November ballot.

Even under the best case—with the Supreme Court certifying language Wednesday—the campaign was a long shot. No initiative effort has ever gathered so many signatures so quickly.

Yet Knutson and others insisted Tuesday they were ready, gathering in Augustana Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland behind large boxes they planned to fill with signed petitions.

On Wednesday, Knutson said the campaign’s legal team would examine all its options. Regardless of what happens this year, though, he insisted the effort isn’t over.

“We’re in this for the long-haul,” he said. “Whatever scenarios come out of this we’re going to keep this going.”

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.