Oregon judge halts voter-approved high-capacity magazine ban

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon judge handed guns rights advocates a victory Thursday and placed a new, voter-approved ban on high-capacity magazines that was intended to curtail mass shootings on hold until questions about its constitutionality can be decided.

Harney County Judge Robert Raschio released the written ruling after a lengthy court hearing earlier this week in which attorneys for gun rights groups sought a preliminary injunction to stop the narrowly passed ban on magazines of more than 10 rounds.

“That the large capacity magazine bans promote public safety is mere speculation,” Raschio wrote. “The court cannot sustain restraint on a constitutional right on mere speculation that the restriction could promote public safety.”

With the injunction in place, all provisions of the law are effectively on hold a little more than a month after voters narrowly passed it in midterm elections. Earlier this week, Raschio extended his order blocking the law’s permit-to-purchase provision, as well as a part of Measure 114 that would prevent a gun sale until the results of a background check come back. Under current federal law, a gun sale can proceed by default if the background check takes longer than three business days — the so-called Charleston loophole, because it allowed the assailant to purchase the gun used in a 2015 South Carolina mass shooting.

The lawsuit in Harney County, filed by Gun Owners of America Inc., the Gun Owners Foundation and several individual gun owners, seeks to have the entire law placed on hold while its constitutionality is decided. The state lawsuit specifically makes the claims under the Oregon Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. Burns, the town where the lawsuit was filed, is more than 280 miles (450 kilometers) southeast of Portland in a rural and sparsely populated corner of the state.

Gun rights advocates, including those who were unable to stop the high-capacity magazine ban in a separate federal lawsuit last week, cheered the news.

“For now, your standard capacity magazines are safe,” the Oregon Firearms Federation wrote to its members in a statement.

Mark Knutson, chairman of the interfaith Lift Every Voice Oregon campaign and pastor at Portland’s Augustana Lutheran Church, said the ruling was a “bump in the road.”

“It was passed by voters and it’s going to save lives,” he said. “We expect it to be fully implemented. There are bans on large-capacity magazines in 12 states plus (Washington), D.C. already.”

Measure 114 requires a permit, criminal background check, fingerprinting and hands-on training course for new firearms buyers. It also bans the sale, transfer or import of gun magazines over 10 rounds unless they are owned by law enforcement or a military member or were owned before the measure’s passage. Those who already own high-capacity magazines can only possess them in their homes or use them at a firing range, in shooting competitions or for hunting as allowed by state law after the measure takes effect.

Raschio said in his 25-page ruling that he would wait until the state told him it had a process in place for issuing the permits before holding a hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction on that element of the law. Oregon has already paused enforcement of the permit provision until Feb. 8 as it finds enough certified firearms trainers for the hands-on classes. A hearing on the background check provisions is set for Dec. 23.

Gun sales and requests for background checks have soared since the measure passed because of fears the new law would prevent or significantly delay the purchase of new firearms under the permitting system.

Gun rights groups, local sheriffs and gun store owners have filed at least four lawsuits, almost all in federal court, saying the law violates Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms. The Harney County lawsuit is the only one filed in state court, gun rights advocates said.

A federal judge in Portland hearing a different challenge to the law under the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 6 delivered an initial victory to proponents of the sweeping gun-control measure that passed in the Nov. 8 midterms.

In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Karin Immergut allowed the ban on the sale and transfer of new high-capacity magazines to take effect. She also granted a 30-day delay before the law’s permit-to-purchase mandate takes effect, but did not quash it entirely as gun rights advocates had wanted.

Raschio’s subsequent ruling the same day threw the law into limbo: Because that lawsuit challenged Measure 114 under the Oregon Constitution, it held precedence in the state, legal experts said.

The law’s fate is being carefully watched by both gun rights advocates and those who want stricter limits on gun ownership. It would be one of the first to take effect since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June struck down a New York law that placed limits on carrying guns outside the home.

The June ruling signaled a shift in the way the nation’s high court will evaluate Second Amendment infringement claims, with the Supreme Court’s conservative majority finding judges should no longer consider whether the law serves public interests like enhancing public safety.

Instead, judges should only weigh whether the law is “consistent with the Second Amendment’s text and historical understanding.”

The legal focus in Oregon’s state court this week highlighted the historical context of when Oregon’s constitution was enacted, and on the firearms landscape at that time. The Oregon Constitution was enacted in 1859, nearly 70 years after the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

Expert witnesses for the plaintiffs and the state gave conflicting opinions about whether “multi-shot” firearms were commercially available and widely known during that era.

Raschio wrote that the plaintiffs had proven to his satisfaction that such large-capacity magazine guns existed at the time and that modern guns are “the direct descendants from the firearms at the time of statehood.”

He also wrote that defendants’ assertions that high-capacity magazines lead to more mass shootings was “mere speculation.”

“The court finds that there is less than a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of a person being a fatality in a mass shooting in Oregon, and even less with an offender who is using a large capacity magazine,” he wrote.

State laws requiring a permit to purchase a firearm were associated with 60% lower odds of having a public mass shooting, according to a study published in 2020. Limits on large-capacity magazines, meanwhile, were linked with 38% fewer people killed in mass shootings.

Defendants noted in their legal filings that every mass shooting since 2004 that resulted in 14 or more deaths involved gun magazines with 10 or more rounds.

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Associated Press writer Gene Johnson in Seattle and Lindsey Whitehurst in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

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