By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog
UPDATED at 12:49 p.m. March 11
PORTLAND – Oregon’s Capitol building is not typical.
There are no metal detectors, no pat-downs, and on most days you can walk in and out without scrutiny. You can even bring your gun if you have a concealed handgun license.
It’s not like Illinois – or most other Capitol buildings in the United States – where entrances are guarded and you have to dump your keys into a bucket so you don’t set off the beeping of machines.
But lawmakers are weighing whether to tighten access to one of the freest and most open Capitols in the country. Proposed legislation in the Oregon Senate would prohibit gun owners from toting into the Capitol building unless they have written permission. Guns would still be allowed on Capitol grounds, just not inside the building.
There is no impetus for the bill, no recent incidents that anyone interviewed by Northwest Watchdog could recall. And even when hundreds of gun-toting Oregonians rallied at the Capitol last month, some entering the building with large rifles slung around their shoulders, police recorded no incidents.
But some people might feel squeamish.
“We want to ensure that the building is open for all and that they do not feel that they are somehow being intimidated,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-South Lane and North Douglas Counties. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Prozanski chairs, had planned a hearing on the proposal, Senate Bill 699, and three other pieces of gun legislation on Thursday but Prozanski said Monday the hearing has been postponed. He said legislative leaders are discussing possible changes to gun legislation and that the hearing will be rescheduled. He would not comment further on what type of changes might be made or to which piece of legislation.
The legislation that would keep gun toting citizens out of the Capitol makes exception for those who get “written permission of the legislative administrator,” but exactly what criteria the public would have to meet or who would make that decision has not been determined. Prozanski said it could be up to Kevin Hayden, the state’s legislative administrator, someone on his staff or the state police.
State Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, told Northwest Watchdog the exemption was a way to get lawmakers who pack heat to sign onto the bill.
Prozanski argues the ability to get written permission would be available to anyone who met the yet-to-be-determined criteria, which might include arms for display or events. There would also be an exemption for law enforcement and retired police officers.
Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, said he doesn’t see a need for the legislation because there have not been issues with guns at the Capitol.
“That’s what makes the whole thing so laughable,” he said. “What was the purpose of the bill?”
Since the mass shooting in Connecticut and the Clackamas Town Center shooting here in Oregon, emotions have run high, and the debate between gun control and gun rights has been escalating. The strictest of legislation banning assault weapons and limiting clips has been pushed to the side amid major backlash and little enthusiasm among many lawmakers to push those measures through.
Prozanski said only 10 states allow weapons in the Capitol and that three of the four states with constitutional carry (Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming) do not allow firearms in their Capitols. The fourth, Alaska, allows them.
Constitutional carry means anyone has the right to carry, mostly without the restriction of law.
Four bills were scheduled to be heard by the judiciary committee on Thursday but could now be amended. A new hearing has not been scheduled yet.
The bills that were scheduled to be heard:
SB 699: Restricts the ability to carry concealed weapons at the Capitol.
SB 347: Prozanski said this legislation would keep guns off K-12 school property unless a local school district opts out.
SB 700: Requires a person to request a criminal background check when transferring a firearm to anyone outside of his or her immediate family.
SB 796: Sponsored by Prozanski, this bill would require live fire training for concealed handgun license holders.
Prozanski, who is a gun owner, called the proposals common sense legislation and said he expects they will get a favorable response in the Senate.
“I’m looking at legislation that I think is reasonable and the vast majority of Oregonians support and does not take away the rights of individuals to carry,” he said. “I believe there is a need to have reasonable regulation for what people do or don’t do with guns.”
As for how it would be determined who could bring guns into the Capitol and who couldn’t, the situation is wait-and-see. Hayden, who does not give opinions on legislation, said he’s tracking the bill to see if his job duties will expand.
He did say there is a reason why Oregon doesn’t have metal detectors.
“This is the people’s house. It is probably one of the freest access Capitols in the country,” he said. “We want people to come in and see how the public’s work is done.”
Exactly how one checks for guns without metal detectors also remains to be seen.