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Gun violence claims over 33,000 lives a year in the U.S., but the idea of bolstering gun laws remains deeply divisive. After a shooting in Las Vegas left 58 people dead and hundreds injured, 61 percent of Americans said they prefer stricter laws while 11 want fewer restrictions, according to Gallup. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Jennings traveled to Oregon, where a group of gun owners say they want to find middle ground.
JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:
Paul Kemp is one of tens of millions Americans who own at least one firearm. Growing up in rural Michigan, he learned to shoot at an early age.
Being able to go out hunting with your dad and your uncles, that was kind of a rite of passage. Opening day of deer season there's no school because half the kids don't go anyways.
And it's a tradition he passed onto his children when he moved to Oregon.
We had targets that would run down a cable and different ways to challenge the kids with marksmanship. They were using air rifles and BB guns at real young ages.
Kemp never imagined he'd become an advocate for gun control. Then on December 11, 2012 came news reports that shocked the Portland area.
Chaos amidst the Christmas shopping rush. Lines of shoppers, even children, could be seen streaming out with their hands up while a shooter was still inside.
a 22-year-old man, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, fired on holiday shoppers and employees at a mall just down the road from Kemp's home.
There were helicopters and fire trucks and ambulances. I must have got passed by 100 police cars coming over from work.
Police intervened quickly, but it was too late for Kemp's 45-year-old brother-in-law, Steven Forsyth. He, and 54-year old Cindy Yuille, were shot dead before the gunman took his own life. A few hours earlier, the killer had stolen this AR-15 from a friend who didn't report the theft until after he heard news of the shooting. Gun owners are not required to report lost or stolen weapons in 39 states, including Oregon.
I started researching the gun laws within 24 to 48 hours of when Steve was killed.
Kemp goes to great lengths to secure his own firearms. He was surprised that there's no legal mechanism compelling other gun owners to do the same.
The gun owner saw the gun was missing before he went to work and he didn't call the police and report it. So, yeah I think as a responsible gun owner I would have reported the firearm missing.
Was taken at Clackamas Town Center, Steven Forsyth.
As Kemp mourned his brother-in-law's death, he felt compelled to take action, but as a life-long gun owner and hunter, he didn't know where to turn.
In Oregon, there are some groups that are on the far right of the issue and then there are some groups on the far left of the issue. And there was no one; no voice in the middle.
So he helped start a new group: Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership or "GOFRO" for short. On this day, they are at a pediatrician's office in Portland demonstrating gun safety locks using a plastic model of a Glock 9.
This will open and then you would thread the cable lock through here on this type of gun. And then the gun is positively unloaded.
The training is intended to help doctors and nurses better relate to patients who are gun owners; to explain for example why gun locks are so important if a child gets a hold of a firearm.
They don't have enough pull in their index finger to pull the trigger. The only way they can do that and the reason a lot of them get shot is they turn the gun around this way and they put both their thumbs on it and they pull the trigger and it's pointed right at them.
Kemp says his organization is focused on promoting gun safety rather than gun control. But not all gun owners believe him. The Oregon Firearms Federation considers itself a stronger defender of gun rights than the National Rifle Association.
Thanks guys. Thanks for coming out.
Kevin Starrett is Executive Director.
So what do we have here?
Well, here we have a shotgun range for trap shooting.
He's based at a gun club so that's why you'll hear some gunfire during our interview.
I feel great sadness for anyone who's lost a loved one, but nothing that they've proposed would help anybody, and in fact they are every bit as radical and anti-gun group as any that's ever come down the hot pipe.
Starrett says there's no need to legislate firearm safety because most gun owners are already responsible.
We're at a firing range right now, and soon there'll be 50 people here with guns and no one ever gets shot. So the access to guns, the availability of guns obviously isn't the issue. When we have hunter safety training here, we have a hundred kids walking around, 12, 15 year old kids. Every one of them is walking around with a rifle and no one gets hurt…and no one gets hurt.
Ginny Burdick is majority leader of the Oregon Senate. She has been working on passing gun safety legislation for 20 years. But it hasn't been easy in a state that has been traditionally gun friendly.
SENATOR GINNY BURDICK:
Historically no one would talk about guns because it would evoke all these strong emotions. And when I started my first Senate campaign I decided that somebody had to talk about it and that would be me. I went door to door and I was absolutely stunned by the reaction from gun owners.
What was the reaction?
Their reaction was, "Yes, it's about time. We need to keep guns away from dangerous people, from felons and yes, I support you."
Over the years, she's had some successes, like passing a law requiring background checks for private gun sales. But her biggest legislative victory came this summer with the passage of a bill called "ERPO."
ERPO is the Extreme Risk Protective Order legislation and it basically allows people, families or law enforcement who are aware of someone in crisis and at risk of posing imminent danger to themselves or others to go to a judge and get an order to separate them from their guns.
ERPO, modeled after similar laws in three other states, went into effect in Oregon on January 1st. It's intended to reduce suicide. In Oregon, 82% of gun deaths were due to suicide between 2010 and 2015.
The purpose is to intervene very quickly and try to give that person a second chance instead of a funeral.
In a surprise move, Republican Senator Brian Boquist, an Army veteran with high marks from the NRA co-sponsored the bill. His stepson, also a veteran, used a firearm to kill himself in 2016.
SENATOR BRIAN BOQUIST:
So I'm at a point now where it's time to do something. This particular bill does not take away any constitutional rights. This particular bill is very targeted and very precise.
That's a tragic loss, you know. As I said, you know, when his step-son took his life, we sent a note to his wife. She sent back a very nice thank you note. I've known Brian for many years. But here's the thing, if he knew his step-son was in crisis he should of done something. If he didn't know his step-son was in crisis, then this bill wouldn't have helped.
The Oregon Firearms Federation opposed the legislation and tried to pass a ballot measure that would overturn it, but they didn't get enough signatures.
They're concerned that there's a slippery slope and that you say that you're just passing some gun safety measures but that your ultimate goal is to severely restrict people's rights to firearms. How can you ensure that, that's not the case?
Nothing can be farther from the truth, for one thing this is a high gun ownership state and we are relatively high gun ownership country so you're not going to get anywhere without the acceptance and endorsement of gun owners, you just are not.
Getting enough gun owners to accept and endorse a law like ERPO was a tall order in Oregon. Whether or not more states will follow remains to be seen.
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