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Oregon lawmakers face threats and backlash about gun bills

April 26, 2021 GMT

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Ahead of the Oregon Legislature’s final vote on two contentious gun bills, lawmakers from both parties have received death threats, intimidating messages and faced recall petitions.

While lawmakers say it is not uncommon for Democrats to receive threats for supporting and sponsoring gun bills, this session some Republicans are seeing a backlash for just showing up to work.

In March, the state Senate voted in favor of Senate Bill 554, which would ban guns from the Capitol and other state buildings and allow local jurisdictions to decide whether people with a concealed handgun license can bring guns into public buildings.

During the floor session, the seats of five Republican senators were empty. Walkouts have become an increasingly common tactic by the minority party to prevent a vote from taking place, by denying quorum. But unlike past walkouts, a majority of the Republicans — six — attended the floor session, all of whom voted against the bill and filed multiple motions on the floor for more than six hours.

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But not everyone was happy with the GOP lawmakers’ decision to show up to work at the Capitol that day, as each of the six senators have received threatening messages.

One email to the lawmakers wished that they would “become victims of criminals who use violence” and in another message the senators were called “traitors” and the “enemy.”

“We’ve gotten some very nasty emails,” Athena Republican Sen. Bill Hansell, who attended the vote, told the East Oregonian. “Even to the extent that we’ve had to turn some of the emails to the state police because we were threatened to be shot.”

The harassment didn’t stop there.

Hansell said his constituents had been contacted to gather signatures to recall him and a Molalla resident filed a prospective petition to recall Oregon state Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod. The petition said Girod “refused to use the single tool available to defend the people who elected him.”

“I think it is pretty amazing that their would be a recall for a Senate Republican leader just because he stayed on for a vote,” said Priscilla Southwell, a political science professor at the University of Oregon.

The petition is a reflection of a new reality for Republican lawmakers, who have repeatedly held walkouts since 2019 to block legislation they disagree with or know they can not defeat.

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“People now expect it for all bills that, from a Republican perspective, are seen as a bad bill,” Girod told Oregon Public Broadcasting in March. “The problem that we had is trying to walk for three and a half months just was not doable.”

Dru Draper, the communications director for the Senate Republican Office, said walkouts are an important tool for the GOP, but they only delay bills from being passed by Democrats.

“We are focused on bringing back balance to the Legislature. Other Republicans should be too,” Draper said.

Democrats also faced threats and intimidation over the gun measures.

Rep. Rachel Prusak, a West Linn Democrat, was recently targeted in a series of flyers with anti-Semitic and holocaust imagery found in Clackamas County. At the bottom of the flyers is a website for a gun rights advocacy group.

“The hate symbols displayed were used to attack my identity while also attacking my commitment to pass gun safety legislation that will save the lives of Oregonians throughout the state,” Prusak said.

Prusak, a victim of gun violence, is cosponsoring a proposed House Bill 2510 — a storage law that would be among the toughest in the U.S.

The legislation would require the storage of firearms with trigger or cable locks, in a locked container or in a gun room. An offense is a Class C violation, which carries a maximum fine of $500, unless someone under age 18 obtains access, in which case it is a Class A violation with a maximum fine of $2,000.

Officials in the House Majority Office say the Democrat is one of many who have received intimidating messages this session surrounding proposed gun legislation. But for lawmakers, these threats are not new.

“To my knowledge, every legislator who works on gun safety receives threats from the small minority of extremist gun enthusiasts,” said Sen. Ginny Burdick, a Portland Democrat.

Burdick has served in the Legislature for nearly 25 years and has been a leading advocate for gun control legislation.

Last month the senator received a threatening email about one of the current bills. She has received a box of feathers and syrup and in years past has had gun activists follow her home a night, sitting parked outside her driveway with a video camera rolling and video posted online.

“I have to be careful, I think we all have to be a little on guard,” Burdick said. “But this is not representative of all gun owners. This is a small fringe.”

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Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.