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Armed in Oregon 

You've just arrived at work, interested in coffee more than conversation, and a coworker enters, setting her purse down - BOOM! A gun explodes, bullet

You've just arrived at work, interested in coffee more than conversation, and a coworker enters, setting her purse down - BOOM! A gun explodes, bullet flies, nearly hitting you - Where are you? The sheriff's office, where everyone is armed? A rural factory where busting-off a few rounds after work isn't uncommon? No, you're a nurse at St. Charles Medical Center and this actually happened a little over one month ago. No one was injured and the incident went unpublicized, but the nurse with the concealed handgun is no longer employed at the hospital. Everyone knows why.

She brought a ballistic umbrella in case of rain.

Others are doing the same and, at the Deschutes County Sheriff's office, dozens of citizens are attending classes to exercise their 2nd Amendment Right. There's another right that's not being talked about, at least not in concealed carry classes, and that is the public's right to know if your coworkers and neighbors are carrying a gun under their coat or in their handbag. It's a pretty well-established right in other places where law enforcement folks acknowledge that information isn't covered by exemptions to public records laws. But not in Oregon. Here sheriffs, including our own, are testing their right to withhold that information while at the same time dolling out permits by the dozen.

"What is the purpose of seeking a Concealed Handgun License?" asks Sergeant Dan Bilyeu, 50 years old, solidly built with short dark hair and friendly blue eyes; a handgun rests comfortably at his side. A few hands come up among the 35 or so attending the Concealed Handgun License (CHL) class Sergeant Bilyeu is leading.

"For myself, for personal protection," answers a man in his late twenties. He is clean cut, wearing a blue polo and intense expression. "When I go camping with my family I want to take my gun along and not worry about always having it in view."

The woman sitting down the table from me has platinum blonde hair, red acrylic nails and bracelets that jangle on her wrists as she offers, "I go riding in the mountains a lot, alone."

A couple in their early-30s sits together in the front row; the male half speaks first, "To keep myself out of trouble." He is wearing a thick plaid coat and a baseball hat that shields his eyes from where I sit, but his smile is unmistakable as he adds, "I carry my gun in my pickup and sometimes forget to have it in the open." The female half of the couple nods then tenders, "Personal protection for me, I would rather be proactive than reactive, and I've been in situations where I felt threatened." She is thin and strawberry blonde, wearing a turquoise top. As the class continues, three hours locked in the Deschutes County Sheriff's office, these two will come to dominate the audience participation portion.

Skipping through several frames of his PowerPoint presentation, Sergeant Bilyeu comes to the "Exemptions" page. Clearly addressing the main demographic in the room - two long rows of Caucasian males in the rear - he makes it clear that a valid hunting or fishing license allows you to carry a concealed handgun as long as you are on your way to or from a sporting event. Pausing, he then jokes, "There's a smell test associated with this exemption."

Other exemptions include recreational vehicles (which are considered residences) and horses (as long as the handgun is in the saddlebag, not readily accessible) but a horse is not considered a vehicle. Also, hiding a handgun to avoid theft is not illegal. Subjectivity reigns, as reinforced by Sergeant Bilyeu: There is a dichotomy between the spirit and intent of the law. However subjective, Sergeant Bilyeu urges the class to comply with any reasonable requests that an officer may make.

This much is clear: Even if you have a CHL, you can't carry a weapon into a Federal building, court, or post office. CHLs are state-issued, and Federal law trumps Oregon. "Concealed handgun licenses are flagged on your driver's license," Sergeant Bilyeu states, then stresses, "Does everyone understand this?"

In my mind, this is the turning point of the class. We are about to move from a factual presentation, conceal and carry law and exemptions, to a presentation of licensee rights. Reminiscent of 2nd Amendment entitlements, the one thing lacking is a reality check: Simply because one signed up and attended this class, is he or she proficient and responsible with his or her firearm? We'll never know; three hours of class for $25, then $65 to apply for a CHL - but no written or shooting range test, hands-on demonstrations, nor real-life scenarios other than oral. $90 in total fees, a PowerPoint presentation, then a thorough criminal history check - That's what is required to obtain a CHL in Deschutes County, Oregon.

"We're not worried about the people that went through the formal training and jumped through the hoops. It's the people that didn't," Sergeant Paul Garrison will tell me later.

Oregon is one of 36 "shall-issue" states, meaning that a CHL will be issued to an individual without discretion if this class is attended, fees paid, and prior felonies and other red flags (recent restraining orders etc.) aren't found during the criminal background check. Among the majority of states, Oregon's "shall-issue" status is at odds with nine other "may-issue" states that use discretion on a case-by-case basis before issuing a CHL. Only Wisconsin and Illinois don't have any form of concealed-carry licensing, though Wisconsin allows "open carry" in most situations and Illinois in rural areas. The 2nd Amendment right to have a firearm is now being reaffirmed in our nation's capital, with Washington D.C.'s 30-year ban overturned by the Supreme Court last week in a 5-4 decision. Meanwhile, Vermont is the most lax when it comes to carrying a gun, allowing residents and visitors to conceal whenever, wherever, for whatever reason. Yet Vermont is also consistently rated as one of the "safest sates" in the U.S, explaining why it is the poster-child for proponents of CHLs.

Chad Ramsey, Senior Associate Director of State Legislation and Politics for The Brady Campaign, told me over the phone, "Oregon has a long way to go in enacting sensible gun laws. Oregon simply doesn't do a good enough job in making sure people who shouldn't have guns don't get them."

Once a debate over Federal vs. State laws and regulations, gun ownership is an individual's right, as underscored by the Supreme Court decision overturning of the ban on firearms in Washington D.C. State controls over CHLs are minimal, limited to background checks and flagging of drivers' licenses; Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton may offer whatever programs he wants - including forgoing an actual shooting test. He also gets to decide whether you can find out if your neighbor, your coworker or the guy sitting next to you in traffic is carrying a gun under his jacket.

The Source filed a State Public Records request to obtain this information and received a letter from Sheriff Blanton in response, which states that the "exact number of permits currently issued in Deschutes County is 6,671. There have been 84 concealed handgun license permits denied or revoked in 2006/2007." Adding that "Deschutes County Sheriff's Office declines to disclose to you the names and addresses of concealed handgun licensees pursuant to the State Public records law." We then turned to the Oregon State Police, who were much more forthcoming.

Congratulations, Deschutes County! We are the most pistol-packing county in Oregon! 2.7% of Oregonians have CHLs (101,642 total statewide) while 4.1% of Deschutes County residents do. Multnomah County has the most CHLs, 10,590, but per capita, only 1.8% of its residents have CHLs. Sherman County exceeds Deschutes County in CHLs per capita, 4.7% vs. 4.1%, but Sherman County's 1,855 total residents with 89 CHLs couldn't hold us off for long. Another interesting discovery while digging into CHLs are discrepancies between state vs. county records - The Oregon State Police showed 6,156 CHLs issued in Deschutes County as of Thursday, June 26, 2007, while Sheriff Blanton's letter, dated June 24, 2007, shows 6,671. Since 84 CHLs have been "denied or revoked" in 2006/2007, the discrepancy of 515 CHLs is rather difficult to explain.

If Deschutes County has 515 CHLs issued that the State Police are unaware of, for whatever reason, and Sheriff Blanton won't release the names and addresses of those with CHLs, how do we know? Will we only know when too late? Road rage, a domestic dispute, don't we have the right to know who's packing? Our Sheriff "declines to disclose" this public information, so we'll just have to wait, hope. Until a gun goes off...

Sheriff Blanton has other reasons for not disclosing the names, despite the law and our official Public Records request. Reached by phone, Sheriff Blanton explained his rationale for refusal, citing concerns such as the possibility of home invasion and identity theft, saying, "I don't see any good that would come from releasing names and addresses of CHL holders."

But, when asked about the 6,671 CHL holders in Deschutes County, Sheriff Blanton prefaced his answer with "Knock on wood," then afforded, "We haven't had any issue with anyone trying to affect an arrest as a CHL holder."

Sheriff Blanton couldn't fully explain the discrepancy between his number of CHLs and the Oregon State Police's, saying only that Deschutes County takes 30-40 applications a month and time time to get the information to the state. Also, the number changes routinely, due to revocations after arrests, etc. Still this doesn't explain Sheriff Blanton's office reporting 515 more CHLs for Deschutes County than the State Police are aware of - Given 30-40 applications and a total of 84 revoked or denied CHLs since 2006, it would take nearly two years for the Sheriff's and State Police's numbers to synch.

Nonetheless, Sheriff Blanton supports the CHL training. "People are going to own handguns anyway, and the class is a good way for us to tell people about the law and gun safety."

If our Sheriff's reasons to refuse to release CHL information and differing statistics behind CHLs confuse, maybe outrage, so too do indiscriminate policies. "Local control" may have cost Oregon 2 points on The Brady Campaign's scorecard, but it remains a hotbutton issue in the bigger battle over gun rights and CHLs.

Consider the case of Shirley Katz, a teacher at South Medford High School with a CHL, who made national headlines last fall when she insisted on bringing her Glock 9mm handgun to school. Her ex-husband, Gerry Katz, has denied acting violently towards her and says he isn't a threat to her or students, but Shirley got a restraining order and continues to insist that she needs her Glock. The school district has a policy against concealed firearms, though, and Ms. Katz was notified of possible disciplinary actions or termination of her employment as a teacher if she continued carrying. So she sued; the case hit the press and created a firestorm around the right to carry a concealed handgun in schools. Debating whether the district's banning of concealed firearms in schools was mere "policy" (thus overridden by Oregon CHL laws) or an actual "ordinance," Jackson County Circuit Court Judge G. Phillip Arnold denied Katz's preliminary injunction against the Medford School District on November 9, 2007.

In deciding and arguing as such, Judge Arnold sidestepped the bigger debate over CHLs. State vs. Federal, 2nd Amendment rights of individuals vs. overall public safety. Ms. Katz is appealing the decision, as is Sheriff Mike Winters, who lost his attempt to refuse to release the names of CHL holders in Jackson County to The Mail Trubune. Still Katz cites that he restraining order against her ex-husband has lapsed and hints at a much larger argument for her appeal: Forget school policy vs. state law and the definition of "ordinance." Instead focus on fear. Calls to Ms. Katz weren't returned as of press-time, but she framed her new argument in an interview with the Associated Press in March 2008: "Since my case first emerged, we've seen six or seven more cases where students were either wounded or injured or killed. It hasn't stopped. It's not going to stop until security at school becomes a priority."

Where Ms. Katz got her statistics from remains in question, but she has made powerful new allies. Ms. Katz at least went through classes (in a Sheriff's office no less, hardly the preferred meeting place for serial killers and violent persons intent on a rampage) paid the fees and had a criminal background check before being issued a CHL. Her appeal won't be heard for months but, given the Supreme Court's new precedent for gun ownership in Washington D.C., she will probably be packing by the fall.

If I had brought my umbrella today it wouldn't have rained.

That's the argument being made by proponents of CHLs and less gun control. Essentially, in order to stop another Columbine or Virginia Tech shooting rampage, we need a well-armed populace: If one citizen with a gun was there, they argue, that other citizen with a gun would have been stopped. Hypothetical at best, such arguments are, quite frankly, as silly as others pro-gun groups try to make.

"Fact Sheet: Guns Save Lives" on offers a cacophony of arguments against gun control. "A citizen in the Sunshine State is far more likely to be attacked by an alligator than to be assaulted by a concealed carry holder." and "Armed citizens kill more crooks than do police." Using stats both dated and deceptive, far-right pro-gun groups depend on the abstract. And fear. Rape is a calling cry, as well as "anti-gun Clinton researchers concede that guns are used 1.5 million times for self-defense."

But there are facts that these groups fail to mention. Like how violent crime has been falling for a decade, with minor, recent blips, and another 1.4% decrease in 2007, according the FBI report released on June 9, 2008. Nor do they mention Mark Wilson of Tyler, Texas, a citizen with a CHL, who ended up dead after trying to stop a shooter outside a courthouse. The battle over gun rights may be more local, individual, but pro-gun groups are now going international. Earlier this year a gunman attacked students at Jerusalem's Mercaz Harav Seminary and an enrollee with a licensed handgun, Yitzhak Dadon, shot the assailant, ending the melee and a possible bloodbath.

"Yitzhak Dadon is a hero," offered Alan Gottlieb in a press release as chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA), followed by the rather ridiculous, "What a pity someone like Mr. Dadon was not in class last April at Virginia Tech. What a tragedy that anti-gun extremism would keep him from attending class at Northern Illinois University. He would never be allowed to teach at Columbine High School, hold a job at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City, or go shopping at Omaha's Westroads Mall."

Yes, you heard Mr. Gottleid right: One student in Jerusalem shot a gunman so five rampages could have been stopped in America - if not for "anti-gun extremism."

Back in Bend, discharging a firearm is banned. This dates back decades but the original, rigid language "No person other than an authorized peace officer shall fire or discharge any gun or other weapon..." has been relaxed over the years. In 1990 the ordinance was amended to include two new caveats: "It shall be a defense to a prosecution... that the person was acting in defense of life or property..." and that "the person was test firing or discharging the weapon, as a necessary part of the person's lawful business operations, at a firing range..." Essentially, it's a Class A misdemeanor to discharge a weapon, unless defending your life or property, or discharging a weapon...

CHLs make holders exempt from such city ordinances state-wide, however ambiguous. And it is the proof of training element - fulfilled by the three-hour class with Sergeant Bilyeu - which makes this possible. This exemption also extends to policies that prohibit firearms in public buildings and schools. Except South Medford High School, it seems. Our CHL class being held in a county building only adds to the ambiguity - Though there is a clear sign upon entering stating that the possession of firearms is prohibited, it isn't enforceable to those with CHLs.

"I trust you guys with this information," Sergeant Bilyeu says to us in summation, offering advice on transporting a concealed weapon once we are licensed to do so. He urges us to buy a holster with a secure clip, and discourages fanny packs or purses that can be easily forgotten on the back of a chair at a restaurant or movie theatre. There is liability and responsibility that comes with the CHL, that's the closing message.

And it's over, a CHL commencement of sorts. All 35 of us can now pay $65 and apply for a CHL, be legally carrying a concealed firearm in a month or so, assuming we pass the criminal background check. So we left, into the quiet night, somewhat ready to carry an umbrella in case of rain.


In Oregon, efforts to keep criminals and other dangerous people from "easily obtaining guns" continue to disappoint. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence does an annual scorecard of states' performance based on five categories. Of the total 100 points available Oregon earned only 18: 0 points for the "Child Safety" category (requiring locks, preventing juvenile purchases etc.) and 0 points for "Ban Military Style Assault Weapons." Without a ballot initiative to close the gun show loophole in 2000 (wildly approved by voters 62%-38%) Oregon would have fared far worse. The 5 out of 35 points Oregon earned for the "Curb Firearm Trafficking" category highlights how far the state still has to go. The one highpoint is the 6 of 10 available points earned in the "Guns in Public Places and Local Control" category - being a "shall-issue" CHL state, Oregon automatically loses 2 points, while "local control over firearm regulations allowed" also cost another 2 points. However dour, Oregon ranks in the middle of the pack: Kentucky and Oklahoma are the worst, tied with 2 of 100 total possible points; Utah earned 4 points, Idaho 6, and Washington State tied Oregon with 18. Tying or exceeding our neighboring states in preventing gun violence may seem comforting until we look south: California scored the most points of any state with 79 out of 100.

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