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Oregon’s gun control law faces hearings in Harney County court

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Oregon’s gun control law faces hearings in Harney County court

Sep 18, 2023 | 8:40 am ET
By Lynne Terry
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Oregon’s gun control law faces hearings in Harney County court
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Firearms are on display in a Salem gun shop. (Connor Radnovich/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

A voter-approved gun control law that’s been on hold for the past nine months heads back to court this week, with an eastern Oregon judge set to decide whether it’s constitutional.

Arguments begin Monday in a Harney County Circuit Court case that pits two local gun owners against Gov. Tina Kotek, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Oregon State Police Superintendent Casey Codding over Measure 114, a gun safety law passed by voters in November. The two plaintiffs and Harney County residents – Joseph Arnold and Cliff Asmussen – object to the law’s ban on large-capacity magazines, as well as its requirements that gun buyers pay permit fees and complete gun-safety training and a criminal background check before purchase. 

Both men – who have concealed firearms permits – say the law violates their gun rights under the Oregon constitution, and they want it overturned. It was set to take effect in early December, but Harney County Circuit Court Judge Robert Raschio, who’s overseeing the case, put the law on hold.

At stake for the state is the fate of the gun control law, which officials say would help protect Oregonians from gun violence and keep firearms out of the hands of the wrong people. The law would ensure that Oregonians pass a background check before obtaining a gun, something that doesn’t happen now when police don’t finish them within three business days. The law also would require firearm purchasers to go through a safety course, which the plaintiffs say they don’t need.

Raschio has reserved six days for the trial, including next Monday, but said it could be over sooner, according to a report on The Oregonian/OregonLive, because he’s limiting the case to whether Measure 114 aligns – or doesn’t – with Article 1, Section 27 of the Oregon constitution. That section grants residents the right to bear arms to defend themselves and the state.

A federal judge already determined that Measure 114 complies with the U.S. constitution. U.S. District Court Judge Karin Immergut found in July that the ban on large magazines that hold more than 10 bullets and the requirement that purchasers obtain a permit – with a completed background check and safety training – were constitutional. 

The Oregon Firearms Federation, the lead plaintiff in the federal case, appealed Immergut’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Other plaintiffs include the Oregon State Shooting Association, National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc., and Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohrey.

The federal case was a bench trial without a jury and the Harney County case will be, too. 

The Gun Owners Foundation and Gun Owners of America, Inc., both based in Virginia, were plaintiffs in the original complaint filed in Harney County, but they voluntarily dropped out at the end of May.

The Eastern Oregon Counties Association, which represents 15 counties, and Oregon Farm Bureau asked the court this month to be included as “friends of the court,” arguing that Measure is unconstitutional.

“(Measure 114) will have a disparate negative impact on (the association and bureau’s)  members and their constituents, and will cause indefinite delays in firearm purchases at the sole discretion of the Oregon Department of State Police,” they said in their filing.

Their request followed one from the city of Portland, which asked to join as a friend of the court on the side of defendants. In a filing, Portland’s deputy city attorney said the city has a significant interest in Measure 114.

“Over the past several years, the city has experienced an unprecedented increase in shooting incidents and gun-related homicides,” the court document said. “As the largest municipality in Oregon, the city has borne the brunt of the effects of gun violence on its citizens and residents, and significant evidence connects the legality and ready availability of large-capacity magazines to that increase.”

Raschio said in a hearing earlier this month that he won’t consider the lethality of large-capacity magazines, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Rather, he said he’ll look at the meaning of “self-defense” in 1859 when Oregon’s constitution was adopted and how the permit requirement would affect a resident’s ability to defend themselves. He’ll also consider police discretion in enforcing Measure 114 and the constitution’s provisions on “unreasonable searches or seizures” and “rights of accused in criminal prosecution.”