Although filed prior to the beginning of the 2021 session and slowly making its way through the process, SB 554 got the boost it needed to quick passage by the two shooting incidents in Atlanta, GA and Boulder, CO. "I, like so many Oregonians, have been distressed by the tragedy of gun violence and the rise of extremism," lamented Portland Democrat Senator Ginny Burdick, one of the three Senate chief sponsors. With more joy and hope, she declared, "I am proud we passed Senate Bill 554 today. It will make our schools and public buildings safer for our students and all Oregonians."
Passage, though never in doubt given the Democrat super-majority, came only following an onslaught of every procedural maneuver Republicans could muster and a hot debate on the floor. "Let me be clear (PDF), this radical policy does absolutely nothing to solve gun violence or make communities safer," Marion County Republican Senator Fred Girod argued, directly countering the claim made by Sen. Burdick and echoed by another chief sponsor (PDF), Eugene Democrat Sen. James Manning, Jr. "It will make it worse. Democrats have brought forth zero evidence that this will do anything except criminalize responsible Oregonians."
Republicans mounted an impressive opposition to the bill, even going so far as to report out of committee an alternative version of the bill, known as a Minority Report (PDF). The crux of the bill is in Section 3, which directs the Legislative Policy and Research Office (LPRO) to compile all the "scientific and evidence-based data" available from all fifty states "regarding the effectiveness of gun-free zones as a credible and reliable deterrent" against those intent on inflicting harm into a report to present to the legislature prior to the 2022 regular session.
When the first motion to substitute the Minority Report failed, Republicans moved to table the bill. When that motion, too, failed, they moved to refer the bill back to the committee that reported it to the floor. Five more motions followed, seeking to refer the bill to the Joint Ways and Means Committee, refer to Senate Rules, even to postpone indefinitely the Third Reading and passage of the bill. All were defeated on party-line votes. But — and this is important — each motion gave opportunity for further discussion both on the merits of the motion and the merits of the bill.
The more bellicose of those who claim to support the rights of gun owners and those who wish to carry their gun(s) at all times strenuously criticized Republican leader Girod and the six other Republican Senators who participated in the floor session, to the extreme of labeling them traitors. Five Republican senators absented themselves: Dallas Heard, Dennis Linthicum, Art Robinson, Kim Thatcher, and Chuck Thomsen. Independent Senator Brian Boquist also was absent, albeit excused (see under Measure History). Senators Linthicum and Thatcher, members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary & Ballot Measure 110 Implementation and sponsors of the Minority Report, were, perhaps, the most conspicuous by their absence.
There is more to this session than this one bill. That is what was in Sen. Girod's mind as he nixed the idea of an attempt to deny quorum. For all Republicans to walk out would have erased all hope of negotiating some type of reasonable redistricting plan; it would simply have emboldened Democrats to escalate their "scorched-Earth" campaign upon the inevitable return of the senators.
Besides, does this bill really define the hill on which activists demand that Republicans die? Current Oregon statute classifies conviction of intentional possession of "a loaded or unloaded firearm or any other instrument used as a dangerous weapon, while in or on a public building" a Class C felony (ORS 166.370 (1). Although ORS 166.370 (3) lists eleven classes of people to whom the prohibition does not apply, only three may actually avoid arrest according to ORS 166.262: A law enforcement officer, a retired law enforcement officer who has not since been convicted of an offense making one ineligible to be licensed to carry concealed, and one who has in one's "immediate possession" one's concealed handgun license.
The bill allows governments to "adopt an ordinance, rule or policy limiting or precluding the use of the affirmative defense described in ORS 166.370 (3)(g) concerning the possession of firearms, by persons licensed to carry a concealed handgun" in those buildings owned or operated by them. Even though anyone reading at a third-grade level would be able to conclude that this provision is unconstitutional — both the U.S. Constitution and the Oregon Constitution protect the right to "bear" arms (i.e. carry) as well as "keep" them — betting odds would likely favor the Oregon Supreme Court upholding SB 544 through some awesome display of mental and legal gymnastics should it become law.
Not to be overlooked, the bill also increases the fee to obtain a CHL from the current $50 to $100 — a 100% increase — and increases the fee to renew the license 50% to $75. Fees serve primarily to limit participation in an activity. Clearly, any law school student could successfully argue that government is infringing upon one's right to "keep and bear arms" contrary to law.
Because ORP Chairman Senator Dallas Heard had been one of the senators who decided to not cast a vote on the bill, the responsibility to provide a statement (PDF) to the press fell to Vice-Chair Herman Baertschiger. He "slammed" its passage, echoing the sentiments of Senator Girod's statement above, saying, "This bill is a direct attack on gun owners and our Second Amendment. It has nothing to do with making Oregon safer. Now this bill is going to the Oregon House of Representatives where we will be working with our Republicans to stop this egregious legislation." He also took the opportunity to castigate Sen. Burdick, calling out her "long history of bringing gun control bills to the legislature but . . . no history of reducing crime or increasing public safety in our state whatsoever." Lest one think Mr. Baertschiger is overstating things a bit, recall that he served in the Oregon Senate until this year.
Ending on a positive note, however, SB 554 passed the Senate without the dreaded emergency clause. An attempt by Sen. Burdick in committee to amend the bill (PDF) by inserting the clause failed. Chances are she will try again when the bill reaches the House committee since she must know that without the clause, the bill certainly will face a referendum.