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If this were a normal year, Room 50 in the basement of the Oregon Capitol would have been packed for this week’s gun-control hearing. The overflow crowd also would have filled additional rooms in the Capitol, with people watching the hearing on big screens and hoping to hear their names called to testify.

Yet the final result would have been the same: passage of the gun-control legislation on a party-line vote.

After a sometimes-heated debate Thursday morning in the Senate Judiciary committee, the four Democratic members sent Senate Bill 554 to a vote of the full Senate over the opposition of the three Republicans. 

A couple of hours later, all 11 Senate Republicans boycotted the Senate’s weekly floor session, depriving the Senate of a quorum to conduct business. Newly Independent Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas also was absent but that was previously scheduled. 

Gun control was not mentioned in the Republicans’ explanatory press release and their letter to Gov. Kate Brown. Rather, Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons and his colleagues called on Democratic legislators and Brown to focus on the most important issues affecting Oregonians: reopen public schools ASAP, accelerate coronavirus vaccinations for seniors and ensure rural residents are treated equitably, speed the reopening of businesses and forego tax increases.

For decades, Oregon’s political party leadership held little relationship to what happens in the Capitol. That changed when Sen. Dallas Heard of Myrtle Creek was elected chair of the Oregon Republican Party on Saturday. 

Heard also had been among those pushing for a change in Senate Republican leadership last spring, which resulted in Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass stepping down and Girod taking over. Now a Jackson County commissioner, Baertschiger is the newly elected vice chair of the state GOP and Sen. Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls is party treasurer.

Why gun control: Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, has long advocated for the concepts in SB 554. 

State law bars people from bringing firearms into public buildings. However, that ban does not apply to people who hold a concealed handgun license, or CHL. SB 554 would allow the state, school districts and local governments to remove that exemption, thereby barring anyone other than police and a few others from legally carrying weapons there. The bill also would increase fees for concealed handgun licenses.

Regardless of what you think about gun control, the measure and this week’s actions raise a number of issues.

The question I always try to start with when analyzing an issue is this: What is the problem for which this is the solution? 

Firearm violence remains at epidemic levels in the state and nationally, yet Gov. Brown has refused to treat gun violence as a public health crisis. The overwhelming percentage of gun deaths are suicides, yet Oregon vastly underfunds mental health care and fails to confront the social, financial and other dynamics that may contribute to suicides, whether in rural areas or cities.

And though almost everyone agrees that guns should be kept away from children and from people in mental crisis, Second Amendment protectors and gun control advocates so distrust each other that they have not worked together on one obvious, albeit imperfect, answer: jointly launching a massive public information and education campaign to promote safe storage of guns. Instead, they fight. 

Which brings us back to SB 554. One advantage of this “virtual” legislative session is that people across Oregon can testify via phone or videoconference instead of driving to the Capitol in Salem. More than 300 people signed up to testify at the Judiciary hearing on Monday. Over 2,000 pieces of written testimony were submitted, according to committee Vice Chair Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer.

The hearing lasted almost four hours. At the allotted three minutes per person, listening to everyone who initially signed up would have taken 16 hours. To expedite the testimony, Senate Judiciary Chair Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, asked committee members not to ask questions of people testifying and said committee staff could provide their contact information to members afterward.

More than two-thirds of people speaking were against the bill. Much of the testimony was thoughtful – the kind that anyone, regardless of viewpoint, should learn from. A bit was off the wall. Almost all was repetitive of what’s been said before. 

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has been proud that – pre-Covid – Oregon had perhaps the most open capitol in the country. Indeed, it was so wide open that a few years ago I was showing the Capitol to a vacationing federal law enforcement officer from the East Coast, he was stunned that he entered the building and even ran into Gov. Brown without needing to surrender the firearm he always carried out of sight.

More questions: If the supermajority Democrats have the votes to pass SB 554 and then ban guns in the Capitol, which they presumably do, will that prohibition apply to legislators and legislative staff who hold CHLs and who regularly are armed? Sen. Thatcher testified that strapping on the holster is just a regular part of starting one’s day. However, Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, said he has a CHL but supported the bill.

Federal courthouses and other federal facilities allow only specifically authorized people to be armed. They back that up with metal detectors and security guards. Will the Legislature install and staff metal detectors at all entrances, including the parking garage doors used by lawmakers, staff and other state employees?

Opponents of SB 554 say public safety is enhanced when citizens are armed and holders of CHLs are statistically less likely than others to commit violent crimes. Supporters say they are uneasy and feel intimidated by being around firearms in public places and that trained law enforcement officers should handle public safety. How does that square with efforts by some Democrats to remove all school resource officers, who are armed, from Oregon schools? (Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, on Thursday clarified that he would not allow such a bill to move forward in the Senate Education Committee, which he chairs.)

A budget question: At the same time some folks talk of “defunding” police, will the Legislature invest more in the initial and ongoing training that police officers deserve to keep their skills fresh, including de-escalation techniques and situational training with firearms? 

As often is true in politics, irony abounds. Statistics show that political talk of gun control leads to a rise in sales of guns and ammunition. Meanwhile, Second Amendment protests, in which people openly carry rifles and pistols, become gun control advocates’ evidence for banning firearms on public property.

In any case, if the Legislature passes the current version of SB 554 – which does not include an emergency clause – opponents could mount a signature drive to refer it to voters.  

About that GOP walkout: Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner of Lake Oswego and Sen. Burdick held a 90-minute town hall with constituents via Zoom on Wednesday. It was informative and congenial, with the exception of some back-and-forth arguing among constituents in the chat. 

Burdick, who was the Senate Democratic leader before Wagner, was forthright with her concerns about the continually increasing partisanship in the State Capitol: “They call Washington, D.C., (68) square miles of politics surrounded by reality, and there’s a little bit of that in Salem.”

Asked by constituents about bipartisanship, Wagner described talking amiably and collaboratively with Republicans in a legislative committee and then seeing Republicans slam Democrats in a partisan fundraising appeal. 

Such is politics. After the Republican walkout Thursday, Wagner issued a statement saying Republican senators refused to show up for work. He added: “Senate Republicans walked out in 2019, again in 2020, and now they are walking out on 2021. Oregonians are exhausted by Senate Republicans’ irresponsible actions against democracy. The Senate Republicans are denying their constituents the representation they deserve to have in the Senate. 

“This must stop. Oregonians will hold Senate Republicans accountable and responsible for walking off the job. There will be consequences for their breach of the public trust. We will advance new rules and laws that will deter future walkouts and provide accountability for all elected officials who refuse to show up for Oregonians.” 

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, responded with a statement later Thursday that included: “The Democrats have scheduled themselves not to show up for work since the session started. By their standard, they have not shown up to work for 14 days. We have missed one day. All of the Senate Republicans, myself included, are working in committee today. Working Oregonians, students and seniors deserve more from us than only scheduling a single floor session per week.

“They call it a ‘schedule’ when they don’t show up to work, while calling it a ‘walkout’ when we protest for better policy. I am calling them out on their hypocrisy.” 

Courtney’s office previously announced that a second floor session will be added each week – on Wednesdays – if needed. Starting March 8, the House plans to have two floor sessions each week – on Mondays and Tuesdays.

What’s in a name: The full name of the Senate Judiciary committee is the Senate Committee On Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation. Whew.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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