Oregon will ask voters in the coming days whether to significantly increase restrictions on guns. If passed, a ballot measure in that state would require people who want to buy a gun to pay a fee, take a safety course, submit fingerprints and pass a background check to obtain a permit. High-capacity magazines — those that hold 10 or more rounds — would be banned outright.
These restrictions would place Oregon with a handful of other states that have some of the most restrictive gun laws in the United States. In part, experts say, that's because the ballot measure process doesn't generally involve the compromises and capitulations that usually accompany the legislative process of passing a law.
"What's been interesting is how proficient advocates have become using these measures," says Josh Horwitz, co-director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University. "I do think there are other states that could benefit from this strategy." Washington state has also used the ballot measure process to pass gun restrictions.
The initiative is opposed by the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association as well as numerous gun-owner groups, which argue that it would create more administrative work for those who seek to legally own guns — without curtailing their illegal use. Some opponents argue that an alternative solution to addressing gun violence is to bolster law enforcement, "whether that's having more prosecutors, whether that's investing in more officers on the street," says Amy Patrick of the Oregon Hunters Association.
National experts on gun violence disagree. "The evidence is very clear. The policies in these initiatives will save lives," says Horwitz. He points to studies in several other states documenting a correlation between gun permits and lowered homicide rates. In Connecticut, the homicide rate dropped 28% over a period of 22 years after the state passed a permitting law.
The effort has been driven by a grassroots team of volunteers and community organizers, including elementary school children and retired baby boomers. For many, the cause is deeply personal.
Charlene McGee recently spent a morning canvassing a neighborhood in northeast Portland. She and her parents emigrated from Liberia. She says that as a child experiencing war, she grasped the danger of guns at a young age. "I remember growing up, my ears just knowing the sounds of different kinds of guns," she says. "Like AK-47 was the most prevalent."
Many people she talked to on this day were enthusiastic about the measure, but she worked to persuade at least one dubious voter. "I'm a gun violence perpetrator," said Lionel Irving. "So I know gun violence too well." After serving time for manslaughter, Irving started a nonprofit to help people break the cycle of gun violence.
He told McGee he's concerned the measure could result in harsher punishments for those who carry guns illegally, which he believes would disproportionately impact people of color.
"Look at the skin," said McGee in response, holding up her own arm alongside his. "I got a 14-year-old," she told him. "I get what you're saying. But that's not what this is."
Afterward, McGee said that she hopes she changed his mind, but that regardless it was a gratifying conversation. They had different perspectives, but the two were able to truly hear each other. For all democracy's imperfections, she said, in moments like these she sees its real beauty.