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Why Oregon's ballot initiative to curb gun deaths could work

Firearm purchaser licensing, as contained in the state's referendum, is one of the most effective policies at reducing gun deaths.
Emergency personnel respond to a shooting at the Forum shopping center
Emergency personnel respond to a shooting at the Forum shopping center in Bend, Ore., on Aug. 28.Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin via AP file

In May 2014, days after the mass shooting near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the satirical news site The Onion published a tragicomic headline that has resurfaced countless times in the eight years since: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

The headline’s longevity — it made the rounds several times this year after shootings in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas, and several other cities across the country — suggests that nothing has changed since it was first published.

Between 2019 and 2020, gun homicides jumped by nearly 35% to 19,384, the largest one-year increase ever recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But that’s not true. A lot has changed since 2014, especially as it pertains to gun violence: The gun epidemic has gotten significantly worse. Despite heroic efforts by advocates and some lawmakers, the number of gun deaths set new records last year as many states weakened their gun laws through permitless carry and stand-your-ground legislation. At the same time, the Supreme Court made it easier to carry guns in public.

In this climate, voters in Oregon have fought back. Heading into the midterm elections, voters took it upon themselves to strengthen gun laws by proposing Measure 114, a ballot initiative that requires a background check, a license and safety training to buy firearms in the state. The measure also prohibits large-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.  

Oregon’s measure is particularly important because Congress, the courts and many state legislatures have done so little to contain the violence. Meanwhile, the number of gun deaths in the United States has skyrocketed — in fact, our analysis of the data shows that guns drove a recent spike in homicides and suicides.  

Between 2019 and 2020, gun homicides jumped by nearly 35% to 19,384, the largest one-year increase ever recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New provisional CDC data finds that gun homicides continued to increase in 2021. Gun suicides also reached an all-time high of 26,322, increasing 8% from 2020 to 2021. Our analysis of this CDC provisional data found that this was the largest one-year increase ever recorded. 

At the same time, homicides and suicides carried out by methods other than a gun have not increased at such rates. Our analysis demonstrates that during that same period, homicides by other means rose only 6%. The numbers are even starker for suicides — excluding suicides involving a gun, the rate actually fell by 8% in the past two years.

Contrary to those who argue that more guns means more safety, the steep rise in homicides and suicides by guns — per the CDC, total gun deaths were a record 48,832 in 2021 compared with 33,594 the year The Onion article was published — coincides with equally sharp increase in gun sales and the weakening of gun violence prevention measures in many states. 

From January 2019 through April 2021 alone, some 7.5 million U.S. adults became new gun owners, collectively exposing, in addition to themselves, more than 11 million more people — including millions of children — to household firearms, according to researchers from Harvard and Northeastern universities. 

Given the Supreme Court’s expansion of Americans’ right to own guns, it can be frustrating to consider what preventive steps are possible. The Oregon referendum, however, is an example of how laws can prevent gun violence. Firearm purchaser licensing, as contained in the ballot measure, is one of the most effective policies at reducing gun deaths. Before the Oregon measure, only nine states, plus Washington, D.C., have had such a law.

The licensing component of the Oregon ballot measure requires that gun purchasers complete a firearm safety training course and an application, including fingerprinting, at their local police department. Before issuing the license, law enforcement officers review the application, run a background check and examine local and state records to help ensure that the purchaser is not a clear danger to themselves or others based on a pattern of violent behavior.

This process prevents many dangerous people from purchasing guns and deters gun straw purchases carried out in order to traffic guns to criminal networks. It also provides a “cooling down” period for individuals who are suicidal or are in crisis by putting time between when someone decides to purchase a gun and when it can be obtained. Research shows that gun suicides are often impulsive, and having a built-in waiting period saves lives.   

Other researchers from our center at Johns Hopkins University evaluated laws similar to the Oregon measure and found large reductions in many forms of gun violence. For example, they found that the passage of such a law in Connecticut was associated with a 33% reduction in the gun suicide rate and a 28% reduction in the gun homicide rate over a 22-year period. Our center’s research has also found that gun purchaser licensing was associated with a 56% decrease in the incidence of fatal mass shootings.   

Measure 114 also includes a ban on large-capacity magazines that can accept more than 10 rounds. While there is evidence that these laws can reduce the number of mass shooting incidents and casualties, their legal status remains unclear in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision.

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Even as many state policymakers do nothing to prevent more bloodshed, many advocates are taking matters into their own hands. Oregon’s ballot initiative is a testament to the power of grassroots organizing paired with the support of gun policy researchers to prevent gun violence and make our communities safer.    

It has been true for some time that basic gun violence prevention measures are deeply popular among voters, polling well even across partisan divides. The intransigence of lawmakers in the face of record gun deaths has cost countless American lives, but it has not yet cost those lawmakers their careers. In Oregon, the days of inaction on gun violence may finally be numbered.