Big Year for Gun Safety?

Background checks for private gun sales to be proposed

Floyd Prozanski
Floyd Prozanski

Sen. Floyd Prozanski is quick to explain that he is not working on gun control legislation. He is working on “gun safety” legislation. As a gun owner himself, Prozanski says he is confident the law he is proposing will benefit all Oregonians.

The bill has not been introduced as of press time and so has not yet been assigned a number.

In the last legislative session, SB 1551 — a bill similar to what Prozanski is pushing for now — failed. SB 1551 would have required background checks for any private transfer of a firearm, unless the transaction occurred between family members. It died in the Senate with a tied 15 to 15 vote.

This session, Prozanski is “very confident” the gun legislation will pass. In the last election, two Democrats defeated Republican incumbents in the Senate, bringing their total number to 18. Activist groups on both sides of the firearms issue are predicting this will be a big year for legislation favored by Democrats.

State law already requires that background checks be administered for all gun sales by federally licensed firearm dealers and at gun shows. The gun safety bill would simply extend that requirement to any private sale — whether it be in the parking lot of a gun show or inside someone’s home.

There will still be exemptions for transactions between family members and other special situations, such as when a person dies and leaves a gun in the custody of someone else.

Penny Okamoto, the executive director for the gun violence prevention group Ceasefire Oregon, says that nothing about the way Oregonians feel toward background checks has changed.

“What has changed is the Legislature,” she says. According to Okamoto, a large majority of both gun owners and non-gun owners in Oregon is in favor of background checks. “Oregon voters have voted out people who aren’t going to support common-sense gun laws,” she says.

Okamoto says she is pleased to see this legislation move forward, but also says gun violence prevention is too complicated to be fixed by just one bill.

Prozanski says he is still working with legislative counsel on the draft of the new bill for this session. He says it will be very similar to SB 1551 but will include a few other provisions. Like SB 1551, it will require any private seller or gift-giver of a gun to get a background check on the person they are selling or giving it to.

Last session, opposition came from citizens, other legislators, pro-gun rights groups and lobbyists. Daniel Reid, the Oregon state liaison for the National Rifle Association, wrote testimony that background checks are ineffective. He said they would “only incur massive cost and bureaucracy,” and would unduly burden law-abiding citizens from exercising their fundamental right to “keep and bear arms.”

Reid also questioned how prepared the state is to actually enforce a background-check law and criticized the bill drafters’ lack of “outreach” to educate Oregonians.

Prozanski says people and the media often miss the fact that a background check requirement has been in place since 1989 — 26 years. At first, the requirement was only for federally licensed firearm dealers. In 2001, legislation passed that required private individuals selling at gun shows to also get background checks on their customers.

The cost of a background check in the current system is $10, and it can be filed online or over the phone between 8 am and 10 pm on any day except Christmas or Thanksgiving.

“All we’re doing at this point is closing the loophole that allows for private transactions to occur without a background check outside of a gun show,” Prozanski says.

If the legislation passes, private sellers who transfer a gun to a new owner without running a background check will be guilty of a class C misdemeanor. Currently, the only incentive for private sellers to run a background check is so they can’t be held liable if the person they sold a gun to commits a crime with that weapon.

Beyond additional background check requirements, Prozanski’s proposed law would also include two amendments. The first would allow courts to decide whether individuals ordered into outpatient mental health treatment should be allowed to have access to firearms. The second is a follow-up to what was originally an executive order by former Gov. John Kitzhaber. It would require state police to notify local law enforcement when someone in their area was found ineligible for a firearm purchase. They would be required to share when and where the transaction was attempted.

Washington state last year passed an initiative for a universal background check requirement. The initiative was backed by Michael Bloomberg’s group Everytown for Gun Safety (formerly Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America).

In Oregon’s 2014 election, state records show that the group spent almost $600,000 on contributions to candidates, committees and grassroots efforts. The national group has identified Oregon as a high priority.

Prozanski says he expects the bill will be ready to introduce in early March.