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February 5th, 2014 KATE WILLSON | News Stories
 

Empty Chambers

A senator says he’s got the votes to pass a gun-control bill, but where are they?

news1_4014ILLUSTRATION: WW Staff
The bill that some Democrats fear the most this legislative session is being pushed by a fellow Democrat.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), whose district is a Democratic stronghold, will push legislation this month that would broaden background checks for gun sales in Oregon.

Prozanski doesn’t have the votes to pass the measure. Moreover, a floor vote for broadening gun control will almost certainly be used against some Democrats running for re-election in November. Yet Prozanski is undeterred.

“I have no doubt it will pass this year,” Prozanski tells WW.

Prozanski, who is a municipal prosecutor employed by the city of Eugene, may have a broken abacus. WW’s tally of votes as of press time suggests the measure will fail.

Others think Prozanski knows the move is a calculation. “It’s an election year,” says Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove. “And Prozanski—even if he doesn’t say it specifically—wants people on record with a vote.”

That might help Prozanski and some other Democrats. But it could hurt those Democrats in swing districts where a vote in favor of gun control can be political suicide. A good example is Sen. Alan Bates (D-Medford), who won election in 2010 by just 275 votes.

Bates’ district is divided. Many in his Ashland constituency would welcome the bill, but Bates’ district also covers conservative areas of Jackson County.

“Alan Bates has to hate the fact that this is coming up,” says Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee considering the gun-control bill. “No matter how he votes, he’s going to make people mad.”

Bates declined to be interviewed for this story. “The senator has not taken a position on the bill,” says Trevor Beltz, Bates’ legislative aide.

Lawmakers across the country rushed to introduce stricter gun-control legislation after 20 children and six adults were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012. Oregon families mourned their own losses after two died in a shooting at Clackamas Town Center just three days earlier.

Four gun-control bills worked their way through the Oregon House and Senate that session, riding a wave of public support. None came to a floor vote.

The measure Prozanski is now pushing would require a private individual to pay for a background check before selling or giving a gun to someone other than a family member. Legislative testimony put that number at 40,000 to 75,000 additional background checks a year.

Oregon has required checks on commercial gun sales since 1989, and on sales at gun shows since 2001. State police ran more than 263,000 background checks for would-be gun owners last year. Less than 1 percent of those were denied.

Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, says opposition to the measure hasn’t budged. “The problem with background checks,” he says, “is that it’s a prior restraint on a right.”

Democrats control the Senate by a 16-14 margin, but Prozanski does not have all of the Democrats’ votes locked up.

For example, he tells WW that Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) “would likely reconsider” her opposition to the measure, but she told WW that he is wrong.

Johnson says she doesn’t consider the bill workable; she prefers beefing up mental-health services and giving judges more flexibility to hand down lengthy prison sentences to felons who try to buy guns.

She scoffed at Prozanski’s claim that she and others will change their position if the vote comes to the floor.

“I think the blanket statement that says, ‘We’ll herd ’em onto the floor, make ’em squeal and they’ll fold,’ that kind of arrogance amazes me,” Johnson says.

As a consequence, Prozanski will have to peel away a Republican or two to get the bill out of the Senate. He identified two who he thinks will support it.

One is Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro), who is up for re-election in 2014. Starr didn’t return WW’s calls or emails, but he recently made his views on the bill clear on Facebook, writing on the page of the Oregon Firearms Federation, “I will not be supporting any new gun laws in Oregon.”

Prozanski also named Sen. Betsy Close (R-Albany) as a potential “yes” vote.

Close tells WW she’s not. “It’s a constitutional right,” Close says. “That crosses political lines.”

Gun-rights advocates don’t see her position, or anyone’s position, shifting as the bill moves through the Senate in the coming weeks.

“The Republican Senate caucus is locked down,” Starrett, of the Oregon Firearms Federation, says. “I have no information that a specific Republican is ready to roll.”  

 
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