Could Democratic opposition sink Oregon gun control initiative?

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File

Oregon’s already shaping up to be a fascinating study this election cycle thanks to the three-way race for governor that could lead to the first Republican to hold that office since 1987, but the gun control initiative that’s also on the ballot is also worthy of some serious attention. We’ve written before here about the disastrous consequences that will ensue if Measure 114 is approved by voters, and while public polling on the measure has been almost non-existent, the one survey that’s fairly recent showed just 51% of voters in favor of its many components; including a magazine ban, a “permit-to-purchase” mandate that includes compulsory firearms training, and other measures that criminals would completely avoid but law-abiding gun owners would be subjected to.

If Measure 114 does go down to defeat, it will be thanks in part to Democrats who may very well support some aspects of the ballot measure but are adamantly opposed to others. That’s the case with two Democrats who dared to go on the record about their unwillingness to vote for the gun control package come Election Day.

Michael Smith is chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon’s gun owners caucus and describes himself as a progressive gun owner. He said he can’t support Measure 114 because of its magazine-capacity ban.

The contention that a ban on large-capacity magazines would force a mass shooter to pause and reload overlooks the fact a shooter could simply carry multiple firearms or magazines, he said. He also believes that any evidence the ban would reduce shootings is inconclusive.

Members of the Oregon National Rifle Association, Oregon Firearms Federation and the Democratic Party of Oregon’s gun caucus contend it will bar the use of certain sporting shotguns meant for skeet and trap shooting, with built-in large magazines.

The measure’s drafters counter that it requires owners of such weapons to modify the magazines to hold fewer rounds. The measure also grants exceptions, allowing magazines that hold more than 10 rounds to be used for self-defense in a home, at shooting ranges or on private property for hunting, in compliance with state law.

But gun rights advocates counter that they’ll have to make an “affirmative defense” to show that they used or possessed a higher-capacity magazine in a lawful manner.

Further, they contend that the enforcement of the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds would disproportionately impact people of color.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission reported it was unable to predict the racial demographics of people arrested or convicted of violations should the measure pass.

Graham Parks, a Democratic Party state central committee member and Portland resident who opposes the measure, said Oregon could learn from Massachusetts’ experience, which has had a ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds since September 1994. Black people accounted for 29.5% of those arrested for having large-capacity magazines in Massachusetts, though they make up 12.4% of the state’s population, according to a 2020 report by Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program.

Miles Pendleton, president of the NAACP’s Eugene-Springfield region, said the victims of shootings are disproportionately people of color. A diverse coalition is behind Measure 114, he said. Pendleton said he found it odd that gun-rights advocates suggest police can’t be trusted to enforce the measure equitably yet are calling for more aggressive prosecutions of violent crimes that typically result in racial inequities.

I don’t think that’s what gun-rights advocates are suggesting, actually, but let’s assume for a the sake of argument that police can’t be trusted to enforce any laws equitably; that a systemic bias exists across the criminal justice system. If that is the case, then why would Pendleton want to create a new, non-violent, possessory misdemeanor offense like carrying a “high capacity” magazine? Wouldn’t he rather police at least focus on the most violent crimes and the most prolific criminals instead, even if that resulted in racial inequities in arrest rates? I don’t understand Pendleton’s position, which is ultimately only going to compound the problems he has with the current state of policing.

Here’s why I think we’d see a disproportionate number of black arrestees if the magazine ban passes; most rural sheriffs aren’t going to enforce the law, or will do so only if and when there are additional and extenuating circumstances like the commission of a violent crime.

In fact, I’m curious to know if the two Democrats who are speaking out against the gun control initiative are opposed to just the magazine ban, or if their disapproval runs deeper. It seems to me that the onerous licensing requirements are also likely to have a disproportionate impact on minorities, given that the proposed law would be most stringently enforced in cities like Portland, which have a higher share of the state’s minority population compared to its rural and suburban counties. The same disparate impact that Smith and Parks rightfully object to won’t end with the magazine ban, but will be felt in almost every aspect of Measure 114.

As far as their vote is concerned, I guess it’s a moot point. The real question is just how many Smiths and Parks there are in Oregon. The Democratic Party has been happy to march hand-in-hand with the gun control lobby for decades, but the past few years have also seen millions of new gun owners across the country, and not all of them are rock-ribbed conservatives. Could that voting bloc be enough to tip the scales against Measure 114 in just a few weeks? If their concern for their personal safety translates into a vote in favor of their right to bear arms, absolutely.

Given the mood of the electorate about out of control crime, particularly in Portland, I expect to hear more discussion about the public safety consequences of tens of millions of dollars in unfunded mandates to law enforcement as well, and that’s a message that should resonate to non-gun owners as well. I believe there’s a real chance to defeat Measure 114, and if it happens Democrats like Smith and Parks will have definitely played a part; something that would be a very welcome development for Second Amendment advocates who believe that support for the right to keep and bear arms should be of fundamental importance across the political spectrum.