Field Notes

Gun control debate still rages a year after shooting

Gun control debate still rages a year after shooting
The sign at the Clackamas Town Center on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

It was the most horrible of days – two dead and a third seriously wounded as a man walked into Clackamas Town Center with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and fired 16 shots.

The gunman, 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts, saved the last shot for himself.

Tyler killed himself before anyone had a chance to ask him what was going through his mind. When the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office released a detailed report months later, one telling detail was absent – why he did what he did.

One thing was certain – gun control advocates seized the day.

Within a week they would be aided by an even more unimaginable event – 20 elementary-school students murdered in Connecticut.

For a while, it seemed inevitable that some sort of new gun control legislation would come about as a result of these shootings on opposite sides of the country. If not new legislation on the federal level, certainly something was going to happen here in Oregon.

Not long after the shootings, there was a poll that showed 80 percent of Oregonians supported expanded background checks.

And then, as expected, the floodgates opened and legislation was introduced.

There was SB 700 – it would have required background checks for all sales except those among family members.

There were also bills that would have allowed schools to ban concealed-weapons-permit holders from bringing guns on to school grounds, a bill requiring concealed weapons permit holders to take courses from a live instructor and a bill that would have forced people with gun permits to keep their weapons concealed in public buildings.

There was a lot of excitement that even if all four did not pass, there would be some action.

It turned out that action was inaction.

By spring, the same polls that had shown 80 percent support for expanded background checks were showing 60 percent support.

The writing was on the wall and soon all the legislation was sent to committee to die slow deaths.

“The votes just aren’t there for the gun bills,” Senate President Peter Courtney said at the time.

There was even some discussion that Courtney had acted prematurely – that the Senate was within a vote of passing new legislation and that vote could be had. But the thing is, even if something had passed the Senate, there was no guarantee that the House would do the same.

At the time, you could hear the air escaping.

Here’s something to remember, though: Oregon’s gun laws are already tougher than what the Feds have on the books. The state even requires background checks on sales at gun shows.

State Senator Ginny Burdick, a main sponsor of some of the gun control legislation, is not giving up.

Early this fall, I spoke with her about whether she was disappointed.

“I am frustrated,” she said. “But I am not beaten. The people of Oregon are clearly in favor of expanded background checks and I still think that we can make that happen.

“I am very determined to pursue that. People in my district expect no less.”

Burdick says that she plans to keep on introducing legislation.

“I am hopeful,” she says. “I think what happened was a roadblock, but not one that we won’t be able to overcome.”

Burdick says the toughest thing will be beating back expected opposition from the National Rifle Association.

“It’s very easy to scare people,” she says. “But the people of Oregon are smart enough to know that we are not looking to take people’s guns away; to deprive them of their rights. This is a question of smart legislation that has the support of the majority of the people who live here.”

Around the same time I spoke with Burdick, I talked with Kevin Starret, head of the Oregon Firearms Federation. As expected, he had a rather different view.

"It would be a fool's errand for anyone to try and pass a gun control bill," he said. "Look at what happened in Colorado."

He was referring to the fact state legislators had been recalled for their votes in favor of gun control.

"The pro-gun sentiment is tremendous," he said. "There is real grass roots support for making sure rights are not taken away."

For Burdick and many others, it’s less about the guns and more about the people who use them. One bill that had been considered would have held gun owners liable for crimes committed with their weapons. Another would have required gun owners to lock up their weapons.

Those are two ideas that might have helped prevent the shooting at Town Center.

Roberts, the shooter – the man who killed two, wounded another and left dozens still feeling the effects one year later – stole the gun he used from a friend.

The gun had been out. Not locked up.

Would tougher laws have made a difference? Impossible to know.

Has anything changed one year later?

Not really.

Remembering the Clackamas Town Center shooting