Victims' families want action, but legal remedies difficult to find
The day after four people were wounded in a suspected Northeast Portland gang-related shooting, gun-control advocates rallied at City Hall.
Speakers at the March 21 event included Mayor Sam Adams, religious leaders and relatives of people killed by guns. They spoke passionately about the emotional and societal toll of shootings, including suicides.
'It is too easy for people to get guns. We're not safe as citizens,' said Teressa Railford, whose nephew, Andre Payton, was killed in another gang-related shooting last September.
The March 20 incident was the fourth suspected gang-related shooting in eight days. All of those shootings followed another incident in which Portland police officer Parik Singh was shot during a routine welfare check early in the month. Singh is recovering after being critically wounded by a suicidal man.
When it came to offering solutions, the speakers last week only urged support for a bill pending in Congress to increase federally required background checks on gun buyers - a bill that has virtually no chance of passing because of the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The truth is, options for local gun-control advocates such as Adams are severely limited these days. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the Second Amendment guarantees the right to possess firearms, striking down broad municipal restrictions on gun ownership twice in the past three years. Oregon law also prevents cities and counties from regulating the sale of firearms.
So any new proposals must be very narrowly tailored. After a rash of gang-related shootings last summer, Adams persuaded the City Council in December to adopt a series of carefully crafted gun-control measures. Among other things, they establish three 'hot spot' zones in the city where police can exclude people convicted of firearms charges.
But the city attorney's office is still trying to figure out how to enforce the exclusions in a way that will withstand a potential court challenge. In any case, the rules would not have prevented any of the March shootings. All of them took place outside of the three exclusion zones.
Prosecuting gun crimes
No one really knows how many guns are in circulation in the United States. Estimates range from 200 million to 250 million, but only a small percent are registered. The majority of owners are responsible citizens. But law enforcement officials say too many guns still are in the wrong hands.
'From my perspective as a prosecutor, there are a lot of illegal guns out there on the streets. By 'illegal,' I mean guns in the possession of people who shouldn't have them,' says Assistant Oregon U.S. Attorney Scott Kerin, who works on gang-related cases.
Despite legal limitations, policymakers and law enforcement agencies have worked for years to reduce gun-related crimes. For example, possessing a stolen gun is already against federal law. State sentencing guidelines mandate longer sentences for using a gun in the commission of a crime. And the Multnomah County district attorney's office works closely with the Oregon U.S. attorney's office to prosecute felons caught with firearms.
'That is a top priority of our office. When a Measure 11 crime is also involved, state sentences can be lengthy. But when the only crime is being a felon in possession of a firearm, the federal penalties are more severe and we refer such cases to the U.S. attorney's office,' says Chief Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink.
Regional law enforcement agencies are already recovering hundreds of firearms every year. The Portland Police Bureau has collected more than 1,600 handguns, rifles and shotguns since 1999 - more than 160 just last year alone. Most were seized at the scenes of crimes and suicides, or donated by people who do not want them in their homes. Unwanted firearms are also collected at Ceasefire Oregon turn-in events (see box).
Nearly 80 weapons were seized over the past eight months during a multi-jurisdictional undercover operation. Agents bought the guns at a fake business in Gresham called Squid's Smoke Shop. The weapons included a fully automatic Sten machine gun, a semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle, a semiautomatic SKS assault rife, a sawed-off shotgun and numerous handguns.
One-third of those arrested live outside Oregon, showing how easily guns travel across city, county and even state lines.
The March 21 rally was organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of mayors across the country that includes Adams and Eugene Mayor Kitty Percy. It was part of the national 'Fix Gun Checks Truck Tour' that began in the wake of the Tucson shootings that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
The tour is headed up by Omar Samaha, whose sister Reema was killed at the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. It includes a large, portable billboard displaying the estimated number of Americans killed by guns this year. During the rally, the number on display was 2,449 - based on an average of 34 people reportedly killed by guns every day.
The tour is intended to support a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) that relates to the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Under existing federal law, licensed firearm dealers are now required to use the system to conduct background checks on buyers to ensure they are not prohibited from owning firearms. People who cannot legally buy guns include convicted felons and anyone who has been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment by a court.
Perhaps the most controversial provision in Schumer's bill is a requirement that private parties selling guns must also use the system to check the backgrounds of potential buyers. Violators would face up to one year in jail, the same punishment for licensed firearm dealers who do not use the system.
'The goal is to make it so there is no way you can buy a gun without going through a background check,' says Alex Howe, a spokesman for the mayor's organization.
Schumer's bill also would encourage states to provide NICS with more information on prohibited people, including the names of everyone who has been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.
Oregon's requirements, however, already are more stringent than the federal laws. State law bans the sale of guns to anyone on probation or convicted of the following five misdemeanors: fourth degree assault, menacing, reckless endangerment, strangulation and second degree intimidation.