Oregonian: Oregon 'assault weapons' ban won't be on the ballot this year, supporters look to 2020

By Hillary Borrud, The Oregonian/OregonLive     June 28, 2018

Oregon voters won't decide whether to ban the sale of certain semiautomatic guns and large capacity magazines in November after all.

Supporters of an initiative that would have prohibited the sale and manufacture of such weapons in Oregon conceded on Thursday that they had run out of time to gather signatures by the July 6 deadline. Gun rights and hunting groups had appealed the ballot title, and the state Supreme Court ordered changes.

Under Initiative Petition 43, Oregonians who wanted to keep their existing affected firearms would have been required to pass a criminal background check and register with the state.

Portland-area clergy led the effort, and on Thursday morning, Pastor W. J. Mark Knutson of Augustana Lutheran Church said the "Lift Every Voice" campaign will instead set its sights on the 2020 ballot.

"Our lightning speed as a team was just too fast for our opponents," Knutson said during a news conference. "They started flopping all over the field with every legal maneuver they could imagine. Oh, they are exhausted by the rightness of our cause. And we are just getting going."

Knutson said members of the campaign hope to qualify at least one gun control initiative for the 2020 election, to put pressure on lawmakers to pass similar legislation when the 2019 legislative session begins in January.

Before the recent state Supreme Court decision, clergy who supported Initiative Petition 43 had planned to gather signatures this weekend in what they called "Sabbath Signing Weekend." But Oregon does not allow people to gather signatures for an initiative until the ballot title appeals process has concluded, and it was unclear how long it would have taken Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to make the court-ordered changes.

The ballot title now reads: "Prohibits 'Assault Weapons' (Defined), 'Large Capacity Magazines' (Defined), Unless Registered With State Police. Criminal Penalties."

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and one of his predecessors, Phil Keisling, said the initiative's abrupt end exemplifies how the state's initiative process makes it difficult for anyone other than well-funded groups and political pros to get their proposals before voters.

"Whether I agree or not with a particular cause, I strongly believe Oregonians should have the right to petition their government without the deck stacked against them," Richardson, a Republican, said in a press release. He referenced his unsuccessful appeal to the Legislature earlier this year to pass a bill to allow petitioners to begin collecting signatures using the attorney general's ballot title, even if that title is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Richardson initially tried to allow such a change on his own, but dropped the policy after the union-backed group Our Oregon sued him.

Keisling, a Democrat who served as secretary of state from 1991 to 1999, said both liberal and conservative political groups have learned over time how to "run out the clock" on initiatives they oppose.

In the 1990s, political activist Bill Sizemore increasingly used Oregon's initiative process to notch conservative policy wins. Democrats and unions figured out they could slow conservatives like Sizemore by appealing the ballot title, a summary for voters of what an initiative would do.

Keisling, a co-sponsor of an unsuccessful 2008 ballot initiative that would have created open primaries in Oregon, said he observed in that case how lawyers for unions that opposed open primaries drew out the Supreme Court's review of that ballot title. He hopes people across the political spectrum might be inspired to fix the system.  

"Now the shoe is on the other foot," Keisling said. "Conservative groups used it to shoot this one down ... It's been brewing a long time that the system right now really best serves people, regardless of their ideology, who want to stop something."