Gun Debate Personal For Many Oregonians

By Chris Lehman

SALEM, Ore. - Few issues draw out as many citizen lobbyists as the debate over guns. This year in Salem, a heated conversation about gun legislation is driven largely by ordinary people on both sides of the issue on four bills.

Every time Vaune Albanese hears about a new mass shooting on the news, she thinks of her brother. Joe Albanese was one of four people shot to death at Cafe Racer in Seattle café last May. Then, last December, tragedy struck close to her Portland home. A gunman opened fire at the Clackamas Town Center mall, killing two and injuring one. Days later, another shooting. Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. It was almost too much for Albanese to bear.

Vaune Albanese: "I couldn't get out of my pajamas away from the fireplace to go to work. I was just paralyzed. And it was such a combination of feelings of helplessness and sadness and depression."

Albanese says she finally got tired of hearing about so much violence.

Vaune Albanese: "Because of my brother's death, I have been moved to participate in getting changes made at the Oregon level."

Albanese came to the Oregon capitol to speak in support of stricter gun laws. Here’s a quick rundown of what's under consideration: One measure would ban guns from school grounds. Another would require more training for people who want a concealed carry permit. A third would ban people from openly carrying a weapon in public buildings such as the capitol. And a fourth--and this is the one getting the most attention--would require criminal background checks for private gun sales. That idea is opposed by many gun enthusiasts like Bob Russell. He doesn’t think it would prevent any gun violence.

Bob Russell: “Absolutely not.”

But it’s not just a matter of philosophy for Russell. The Portland man occasionally sells guns through a website called Armslist.com. It's like Craigslist, but for weapons. Russell’s current offering is an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle listed at 16-hundred dollars. It’s the same kind of gun used at Clackamas Town Center and at Sandy Hook. Russell thinks background checks would be cumbersome. He’d rather rely on his gut. For instance, he never meets a potential buyer at his house. Instead, he sets up a meeting in a grocery store parking lot.

Bob Russell: "I always find out what kind of car they're going to be pulling in, because I sit off to the side somewhere and look at them before I meet them. You're dealing with guns, so…"

There are more than a thousand guns listed for sale in Oregon right now on Armslist. Under current law, none of those transactions would require a criminal background check. At least one gun enthusiast thinks that requiring more background checks is a good idea.

Sean Johnson: "I'm not opposed to that."

Sean Johnson of Beaverton is also selling an AR-15 on Armslist and doesn’t mind the inconvenience of checking out who he sells to.

Sean Johnson: "If that can stop people who shouldn't have access to firearms from getting them into their possession, then yeah, by all means we should do that."

Supporters of the proposed gun measures call them "common sense" regulations that don't prohibit who can own a gun or what type of gun they can own. Earlier proposals to ban high-powered rifles or large capacity ammunition magazines have gone nowhere in Salem. The chair of the Oregon Senate's Judiciary Committee, Democrat Floyd Prozanski, says he thinks those are issues better handled by Congress.

Floyd Prozanski: "This is a national issue. One that if you're going to address it by trying to prohibit certain types of rifles or weapons from being maintained by the general populace, that you have to have that done on a national level."

Prozanski's fellow Democrat, state senator Ginny Burdick, disagrees with that assessment. She's advocated even stricter gun laws. But Burdick says her colleagues won’t go that route because of the relentless lobbying efforts by gun rights' supporters.

Ginny Burdick: "It is human nature to try to back off when someone's attacking you. It's just human nature. And we just cannot give in to it because the job is just too important."

Burdick’s arch-nemesis in this debate is Kevin Starrett of the Oregon Firearms Federation. He’s trying his best to make sure the bills fail with the help of gun enthusiasts across the state. Starrett says lawmakers are desperate to appear as though they're acting to curb gun violence in the wake of the shootings in Clackamas and in Connecticut.

Kevin Starrett: "Although I think all of these things were ideas that were created long before the recent shootings, they've exploited those events."

For as loud as the debate over guns in Salem has become, it’s not clear yet whether lawmakers will even vote on the scaled-back slate of measures now under consideration.

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