Rabbi Michael Cahana
Rabbi Michael Cahana
Lift Every Voice Oregon, an interfaith committee whose key leaders include Rev. Mark Knutson, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland, and Rabbi Michael Cahana at Congregation Beth Israel, have succeeded in garnering enough signatures to put a gun-safety initiative on the November ballot in Oregon.

“We’re really excited,” said Rabbi Cahana. “We feel confident these measures will save lives. This initiative will decrease the uptick in gun violence.”

Petition signatures had lagged until the group saw a surge in volunteers and in Oregonians wanting to sign the petition after mass shootings in May, including the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Petition Initiative 17 would ban large capacity magazines over 10 rounds, require a background check that would lead to a permit to purchase guns, and instruct the state police to create a firearms database.

The measure would bring Oregon more closely in line with California and Washington, which passed gun-safety measures in recent years.

It also would bring Oregon closer to Pope Francis’ and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ position.

Pope Francis, in his address to a joint meeting of Congress in 2015, asked the senators and representatives, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”

A June 3 USCCB letter to Congress this year reiterated the bishops’ longstanding support for a total ban on assault weapons, as well as limits on civilian access to high-capacity ammunition magazines and weapons. The bishops also support universal background checks, support raising age minimums for gun purchases, and the federal criminalization of gun trafficking.

“It should not be the case that in the United States, a person needs character references to apply for a job but not to purchase military-style assault weapons,” they wrote.

The USCCB has taken similar stands against gun violence for decades.

“The bishops are very clear on this and consistent in their support for common-sense regulations like background checks,” said Danny Rauda, social justice coordinator for St. Anthony Parish in Tigard. “It’s a pro-life issue.”

A long road

The Lift Every Voice Oregon gun-safety measure was years in coming.

The petition that will be on the 2022 Oregon ballot is not the same as Lift Every Voice Oregon’s first attempt in 2018. “This petition is similar but its elements have been successfully tested in other states,” said Rabbi Cahana.

The group was naïve their first time out, said the rabbi. They didn’t give themselves enough time to collect signatures. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

The churches, synagogues and mosques persevered.

“What motivates me in this issue is the Bible’s command not to stand idly by as your neighbor bleeds,” said Rabbi Cahana, paraphrasing Leviticus 19:16. “There’s been such a sense of hopelessness, and now we have a chance to follow that command.”

The lack of political will on gun safety has been a source of sorrow for Rauda. “If people have given up it’s because they think it’s a political issue where people just go to their side’s camps,” he said. “It’s an example of people’s political identity influencing their view more than their Catholic identity.”

For Rauda, it’s a profound act to remove an issue from the political looking glass. “It’s inspiring to be more intentional and look at an issue from our shared vision as Catholics,” he said.

Rauda hopes Catholics will talk about the gun-safety petition at the parish and community level.

‘A big fight’

Sean Holihan, state legislative director for Giffords Law Center, expects the initiative will provoke “a big fight for NSSF and NRA” — the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry and the National Rifle Association, a gun rights advocacy group.

“I assume they will spend a lot of money fighting this initiative,” said Holihan. He also thinks the national gun groups will be spending funds in the 2022 battle for control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action condemned the Oregon initiative. “[T]hese anti-gun citizens are coming after YOU, the law-abiding firearm owners of Oregon, and YOUR guns,” their website warns. “They don’t care about the Constitution, your right to keep and bear arms, or your God-given right of self-defense.”

The Oregon Firearms Federation, which calls itself “Oregon’s Only No Compromise Gun Rights Organization,” has urged its members to ask that their talking points be included in the 2022 voters’ guide. They argue that this measure is almost sure to have a massive negative impact on minorities; it will make sporting shotguns that have tubular magazines that can hold more than 10 “mini shells” illegal; that the measure’s requirement for training is unworkable, and other objections.

Gun-safety laws nationwide

The Giffords Law Center is named for Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot along with several Tucson, Arizona, constituents — six of whom died — by a mentally ill gunman in 2011. The center provides legal assistance to promote gun safety — including data on gun-safety laws’ effectiveness.

Holihan thinks the data makes it difficult to argue that such measures don’t work.

Alaska, he notes, garners an “F” for its gun-safety laws. That state sees 24.5 gun fatalities per 100,000 people.

Hawaii, in contrast, wins an “A” for its stricter laws. It sees 2.4 gun fatalities per 100,000.

“These laws do save lives,” Holihan said. “In the same way that domestic violence laws save lives.”

There are variables. Holihan admits that naysayers point to Chicago’s grim shooting numbers. “But Illinois is surrounded by states with weak laws, meaning it’s easy to go around the state’s laws,” he said.

Regarding the argument that tough gun laws mean that bad guys break the law and get guns anyway, leaving only the law-abiding good gun owners following the laws, Holihan said that’s not what experience has shown. Mass shooters in recent cases have waited until they reached the minimum age to buy the weapon they used. Weak state laws then made it possible for them to legally buy the guns they used in those shootings.

“We should be able to come to an agreement that bad guys shouldn’t have guns,” Holihan said. “These laws work toward that end.”