SALEM  -- A Senate hearing on legislation to alter state gun laws drew a cavalcade of passionate opposition.

Members of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation heard four hours of virtual testimony Monday on Senate Bill 554, which allows local jurisdictions to prohibit people with concealed handgun permits from carrying firearms into public buildings. Anyone caught with a firearm in a public building could face Class C felony charges.

The bill is necessary, advocates say, because state law allows people with concealed handgun permits to carry firearms into some public buildings.

It was the first time this session that the committee heard testimony on gun-related legislation. Committee members will discuss SB 554 again during an online work session at 8 a.m. Thursday.

Most of the more than 200 people who testified online told the committee that the legislation seemed like a “mean-spirited” slam at law-abiding people who went through a legal process to get a concealed handgun permit. A total of 330 people wanted to speak in person, but the committee ran out of time to hear them all. The committee’s witness registration list was 27 pages long. More than 630 people submitted written testimony.

Sen. Kim Thatcher, a Keizer Republican and committee vice chairwoman, said after the hearing that gun issues always drew a big response.

“Gun legislation, especially legislation that targets members of the public who don't commit crimes (concealed handgun license holders), will always be controversial,” she said. “It deals with constitutional rights.”

Public officials 'vulnerable'

A handful of city and county officials who testified told the committee the legislation was necessary to protect public buildings. Some also warned against adopting the bill, claiming it would criminalize otherwise lawful behavior.

Yamhill County Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer told the committee that as a sexual assault survivor and single mother, she obtained a concealed handgun permit for protection. She said SB 554 would create a “minefield of gun-free zones” across the state.

“We are not the cause of gun violence,” said Berschauer, who three days earlier proposed an ordinance to make Yamhill County a 2nd Amendment sanctuary. “Everyone wants safe communities, but you are targeting the wrong people in this bill.”

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an emergency room physician and a public health advocate, supported the legislation, saying it could help create a “sense of welcome and safety” for public officials.

“As an ER doctor, I have seen the devastating results of gun violence firsthand,” she told the committee. “As a Multnomah County commissioner, I feel vulnerable as a publicly visible elected official in a climate of rising anti-democratic extremism, and as a mom I talk with my kids regularly about their profound fears arising from school shootings across the country.

“As an elected official, I believe it is incumbent upon me and my colleagues to welcome the public and maintain the openness and transparency that’s foundational to our public process. For me, a sense of welcome and safety hinges on maintaining a building that is gun-free.”

Washington County Commissioner Nafisa Fai, a Somali immigrant who saw gun violence as a child in her native land, supported the bill.

“I want everyone to feel safe in our county buildings and in public buildings,” she told the committee. “The only way to achieve this is by only arming law enforcement officials.”

Yamhill County Chair Mary Starrett opposed the legislation because it was contrary to her 2nd Amendment rights.

“With the passage of this bill, local governments and jurisdictions would have the ability to take away the guarantees we have enjoyed in both the U.S. and Oregon Constitutions,” Starrett told the committee.

A ‘back-door repeal’

In Oregon, 276,327 people have valid concealed handgun licenses. To get a concealed handgun license, people must be 21, a U.S. citizen who has completed a gun safety course and able to pass a background check.

Many of the people who testified online, or submitted written testimony, told the Senate committee that people who went through the concealed handgun license process committed few gun violence crimes.

Martin J. Claxton of Portland said he opposed the bill because could create confusion about where legally permitted guns would be allowed.

“What it does is criminalize a group of gun owners who possess (concealed handgun licenses),” Claxton wrote. “Do we really want to turn into a felon somebody, say a parent who might be picking up, or dropping off their child at a school, or an individual dropping off or picking up a friend or family member at an airport?”

Rodney J. Tombleson of Prineville wrote that the proposed bill was “intolerable and insufferable.” “This proposal makes it so impractical to follow the law as to render the right to bear arms null,” he wrote.

Former law enforcement officer Gerald Boyd of Prineville opposed the bill, telling the committee that it “will do absolutely nothing to deter criminals, who defy laws and are ineligible to possess a concealed handgun license, from carrying a weapon in the places included in this bill.”

“What you will do, if you pass this proposed legislation, will amount only to a ‘feel good’ effort when, in reality, it will accomplish nothing other than to deprive law abiding citizens of their rights under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Boyd wrote.

Members of the Gun Owners Caucus of the Democratic Party of Oregon opposed the legislation because they said it created too much confusion for gun owners. Michael Smith, chairman of the caucus, told the committee that the bill’s “maze of no-carry-zones” would “criminalize” carrying firearms. Smith argued instead for a more limited bill forbidding firearms on state Capitol grounds.

Bend grandmother Heather McNeil supported the bill, telling the committee that guns shouldn’t be allowed in public buildings because of the recent political upheaval.

“Given the recent terrifying events at both the federal Capitol and our state Capitol, the option to ban concealed carry of weapons is crucial,” McNeil wrote. “Allowing loaded concealed guns everywhere puts us at unnecessary risk.”

Stephen Poss of Sisters called the legislation a “a back-door repeal” of concealed handgun licenses.

“Hunters picking up their sons or daughters at Redmond Airport, or other airports, in order to go hunting will become felons,” Poss wrote.

William Garland of Prineville called the bill “a draconian solution to a non-existent problem.”

“Only the law-abiding and responsible will suffer the impact of SB 554,” Garland wrote. “SB 554 will create a patchwork of prohibited zones around the state. Well-intentioned citizens will unknowingly violate this proposed law.”

Former Redmond firearms dealer Ray Lackey said the bill would “nullify Oregon’s concealed carry law.”

“SB 554 is arbitrary and creates an illogical basis whereby an individual right can be turned into a crime without cause,” Lackey wrote.

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