Max Denning

Three to four times a month, Trevor Winder makes the trek from Portland to Northeast Oregon to teach concealed carry classes to approximately 30 people who want a concealed handgun license. Captain Craig Ward of the Union County Sheriff’s Office said he holds classes about once a month. While the state Legislature considers tightening gun laws, individuals in Northeast Oregon continue to get their CHL at a higher rate than the rest of the state — nearly double, in fact.

Ward, who has been with the sheriff’s office since 2000 and in law enforcement for more than 30 years, estimated that in 2018 there were approximately 3,300 people with concealed handgun licenses in Union County. The county’s population in 2018 was estimated at 26,885, meaning more than 12 percent of the county has obtained a concealed handgun license. In Oregon, Ward said the most recent statistics he’s seen indicate 269,000 residents possess a CHL, meaning approximately 6.4 percent of the state’s population has a CHL.

Winder’s CHL license class for Oregon is simply a firearm safety class approved by the National Rifle Association, which is all the training Oregon law requires for individuals who want to receive a CHL. There are a number of qualifications participants must meet to obtain a CHL including being at least 21 years old, never being convicted of a felony and not being required to register as a sex offender in any state — among many others. If these numerous qualifications are met, receiving a CHL is fairly simple and many in Eastern Oregon take advantage. Winder, who has been teaching classes for four years, said he believes the high number of CHLs is due to the lifestyle in Eastern Oregon.

“I think it has to do with culture,” Winder said. “I grew up in Southern California and guns are kind of a taboo thing down there.… (In) Northeast Oregon it’s a very rural market, and people, for the most part, want to mind their own business and have their own personal property.”

Winder moved to Portland from La Grande approximately six months ago, and when he attempted to hold classes there, he was unable to drum up much interest.

“I think there are avid Second Amendment supporters out here (in the Portland metropolitan region), but their voice gets a little squashed in this area, so they keep to themselves,” he said.

In Oregon, no other state’s concealed handgun license is recognized, and if an individual with any other state’s CHL brought a concealed firearm into Oregon could lead to criminal charges. Oregon’s CHL also has limited reciprocity, with only 13 other states recognizing a concealed handgun license from Oregon. That’s why Winder teaches two courses most weekends, one going over Oregon’s laws and requirements and another going over Utah’s. An Oregon resident who also has a Utah CHL is able to carry in 31 other states, including Idaho and Washington.

Winder and Ward agreed many individuals who receive CHLs do so for personal safety.

“The vast majority of people just want the option,” Winder said. “If I am going to a bad part of town, I want to be able to protect myself.”

Ward said he has confidence in the law-abiding individuals in Union County who choose to carry firearms.

“I trust the people in our community, I truly do,” he said.

According to Ward, the sheriff’s office is currently staffed at less than 50 percent of the recommended level.

“If we were at the bare-bones minimum of 1.5 per thousand, I would need 18 deputies. I’m at a fraction of that,” Ward said, noting he usually has two deputies on duty. “If you live in the La Grande area, Island City or one of those other outlying areas, it could easily take (the deputies on duty) 20 minutes to get there. That’s forever. So we strongly support people who are willing to accept some responsibility for the safety of themselves and their families. We do not feel threatened by the people we serve. We do not feel in opposition to the people we serve. We feel that we are in partnership with them.”

However, Ward said although he believes there have been instances in the county when an individual with a concealed handgun license used a firearm to diffuse a situation, he couldn’t give a specific example, nor could he say conclusively if having citizens carry firearms lessens crime.

All in all, with low staffing levels at the sheriff’s office, Ward said he believes it would be a mistake for the government to abridge an individual’s right to self-defense.

“If the government can’t protect the person, then I don’t believe the government has the moral right, let alone the moral imperative, (to prevent you from protecting) yourself,” Ward said.

In 2018, the RAND corporation — which according to its website is “a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous” — analyzed a number of nationwide studies on the effects of concealed-carry laws.

The organization found little conclusive evidence of the overall impact of the laws and determined there are only two outcomes “that may be increased by concealed-carry laws” — violent crimes and unintentional injuries/death.

Oregon is one of 37 states in the U.S. that has a shall-issue policy for concealed handgun licenses. Shall-issue laws are described by the Federal Government Accountability Office as taking away the discretion of the authorities that issue the permits.

“Issuing authorities are required to issue a permit to an applicant that fulfills the objective statutory criteria if no statutory reason for denial exists,” a report to Congress created by the GAO states.

The RAND corporation found “evidence that shall-issue concealed-carry laws may increase” unintentional firearm injuries and violent crime, but also called the evidence “limited.”

Ward said he prefers for the sheriff’s office not to be required to exercise discretion when issuing concealed-carry permits. He also noted that some believe it’s too easy to receive a CHL in Oregon, but he does not feel that way.

“We strongly support the Second Amendment and the right of peaceable and law-abiding citizens to be able to defend themselves,” Ward said.