The question is becoming a focal point of the gun control debate in Oregon: Should gun owners be held liable if someone steals one of their firearms and then it is used to injure someone within two years of the theft?
Discussions of this question are heating up in the Legislature and across the state as lawmakers evaluate the pros and cons of Senate Bill 978, described by the Statesman Journal of Salem as the most prominent gun control bill in the current session of the Legislature.
The measure’s proposals include requiring gun owners to secure their guns with a cable or trigger lock or in a securely locked container. They would also be required to notify the police within 72 hours of losing a firearm or having it stolen. Should a stolen firearm be used to injure someone, the owner could be charged with a crime, according to a story in the Blue Mountain Eagle of John Day earlier this month.
Oregon Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena) opposes SB 978 in part because of the storage requirement. Hansell said his big reason to not support the bill is because it would not be fair to hold a gun owner responsible if someone steals a firearm and then uses it to injure someone.
“The gun owner is not the one who committed the crimes,” the senator said. “It is a terrible part of the bill.”
Hansell said he believes many portions of SB 978 violate the Second Amendment, which provides all Americans the right to bear arms.
“I support Second Amendment rights and I oppose anything that erodes them,” Hansell said.
Phil Gillette, the sporting goods manager at Ace Hardware in La Grande, also opposes the storage requirement of SB 978. He said that keeping a gun in a locked house should be considered the equivalent of having it in a safe.
He added that holding gun owners responsible for crimes committed with their stolen firearms would be like charging a car owner with a crime if someone steals the vehicle and then is in an accident that causes an injury.
However, Penny Okamopo, executive director of Ceasefire Oregon, a Portland-based nonprofit that seeks to reduce gun violence via legislation, is a strong supporter of the storage requirement provision of SB 978.
“It will save lives — that is the bottom line,” Okamopo said. “Unsecured firearms are a primary reason there are gun deaths.”
She said SB 978 would not only prevent guns from being stolen but also prevent tragedies by making it harder for children to access guns in their homes.
“It would help protect minors from accidentally being injured by guns, from unintentionally being shot at home,” Okamopo said.
She also said it would make gun owners more careful when they take a firearm outside their residence.
“If a gun owner takes a firearm outside one a month, the person is three times more likely to have it stolen,” Okamopo said.
She also said that making guns less accessible would reduce suicides. The Ceasefire executive director said at least 60 percent of suicides in Oregon are committed with firearms.
A major provision of SB 978 would allow Oregon retailers not to sell guns to anyone until they are 21. Presently, 18 is the minimum age at which anyone can purchase a rifle in Oregon and 21 is the minimum age for buying a handgun. Gillette opposes this provision of the bill, saying he believes retailers should be allowed to sell rifles to anyone 18 and older who they believe are responsible. Gillette takes his responsibility of selling guns seriously.
“I have the right to refuse service to anyone,” he said. “I have to be responsible as a dealer.”
He said he will refuse to sell a gun to anyone who smells of alcohol or appears to be under its influence. When he is suspicious about someone who wants to buy a gun, Gillette said, he escorts them out of Ace Hardware.
“I go by what I physically see — if it doesn’t read right, then I’m not selling them a gun,” he said.
He said that raising the minimum age for purchasing rifles to 21 would be out of line with other responsibilities people are given when they are 18.
“If we change the age to 21 then we should raise the voting age and the military service age to 21,” Gillette said.
Rev. W. J. Mark Knutson of Lift Every Voice Oregon, a coalition of faith-based communities run primarily by volunteers that advocates for safer schools, houses of worship and communities, likes the provision of SB 978 allowing retailers to raise the minimum age for buying a gun. Knutson said it is among the reasons Lift Every Voice Oregon supports the bill.
He said this provision, like all of SB 978, seems logical.
“It is a common sense law for safety,” Knutson said.
He believes that support for SB 978 is strong throughout the state.
“It is not urban versus rural. It is all Oregonians together,” Knutson said.