By Gordon R. Friedman
Members of the Oregon House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would expand the number of people banned from owning guns because of domestic violence or stalking convictions.
More than one lawmaker cried on the House floor while discussing the damage that a raging person can do with a gun. The chamber's bipartisan adoption of the bill coincidentally came one day after a gunman killed 17 people at a Florida high school.
The bill, House Bill 4145, is one of Gov. Kate Brown's top priorities for the five-week session now underway. She tweeted Thursday, "This is a lifesaving policy that will help keep our promise to families across the state to keep our communities safe."
More than 250 Oregonians were killed by domestic abusers from 2003 to 2012, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority. Most victims were women and children, and of the women, more than 80 percent were killed by their husband or boyfriend.
Thursday's House vote fulfilled a long-sought goal of Brown and other Democrats to advance legislation that would close what they have dubbed the "boyfriend loophole."
Oregon has had a ban on gun ownership by convicted domestic abusers and stalkers since 2015, but it does not apply to abusers who are not married to, have children with, or live with the victim. Supporters of the bill passed Thursday have argued that the loophole leaves women vulnerable to being shot by abusers they are dating but not married to.
"A person who assaults their boyfriend or girlfriend is no less guilty of domestic violence than someone who assaults their husband or wife," said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, adding that she believes the loophole represents "a significant flaw" in Oregon's firearms regulations.
Rep. Jeff Barker, an Aloha Democrat who coauthored the bill, said he believes it will close a "dangerous loophole" allowing domestic abusers to own guns. He pushed back against criticism of the bill by gun-rights groups, citing statistics that show many women face domestic violence and that the presence of guns make those situations more likely to be deadly.
Barker, a retired police officer, said he witnessed many instances of domestic violence while on the beat. In a speech from the House floor, he said he "tried to suppress" the worst memories, often with alcohol. He recalled one crime scene he was dispatched to, where a woman had been shot to death by her husband after a domestic dispute. Barker said he arrived to find "a young mother dead on the floor," her two children crying nearby.
"Had there not been a gun in that family maybe those girls would have been able to grow up with their mother," Barker said.
Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, wept as she recalled growing up in a tiny rural Oregon community with an abusive, alcoholic father. She said she has "seen the rage" that can infect domestic abusers.
"I believe for certain that if it weren't for my father's absolute intense hatred for guns, our story would have a very different ending," she said before casting a vote in support of the expanded gun ban.
Rep. Andy Olson, a retired Oregon State Police trooper, said he opposes the bill because he believes it will not prevent domestic violence. Olson, a Republican from Albany, said people determined to commit domestic violence may attack their partners with knives, bats or by other means -- and could steal a gun by breaking into a home or car if motivated to do so.
The final vote tally was 37-23, with Rep Caddy McKeown of Coos Bay the only Democrat to vote against the bill.
Three Republicans voted "yes" despite enormous opposition from groups like the National Rifle Association and the Oregon Firearms Federation: Knute Buehler of Bend, Rich Vial of Scholls and Julie Parrish of West Linn.
"All week long as I've anticipated this moment, I've been inclined to crawl under my desk in the fetal position," said a teary-eyed Vial, referencing pushback against the bill.
Buehler, who is also a Republican gubernatorial candidate, said in a statement that victims of domestic violence "should not have to live in fear that their abusers will possess a firearm."
"This legislation makes a small change to existing policy, which was established in 2015 with bipartisan support," he said. "It will enhance efforts to keep women and children safe."
The bill now heads to the Senate, the more conservative upper chamber of the Legislature. A spokesman for Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said Courtney supports the bill and will allow the Senate to vote on it if it passes out of committee.
(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)