On Wednesday, Oregon’s Supreme Court refused to approve Initiative Petition 43 - a state ballot proposal for an assault weapon and high-capacity magazine ban - due to the initiative’s repeated use of vague and misleading language and outright false claims to describe the proposed law to voters. Furthermore, the court directed Oregon’s attorney general to revise the language of the initiative to comply with state laws requiring Oregonians to be accurately informed about the law’s key provisions at the ballot box.
However, even if the necessary revisions were made to the gun control initiative’s language, supporters of the measure would need to collect 88,184 signatures by July 6thto get it on this year’s ballot. Furthermore, the collection of those signatures could not legally start until Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum made the revisions to the ballot language required by the court. Given these legal roadblocks, multiple local news sources were not optimistic about the initiative’s chances for success.
Unsurprisingly then, in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Portland religious leaders who are the main backers of Initiative Petition 43 announced on Thursday that they would not continue their efforts to get the gun control proposal on November’s ballot. According to The Oregonian:
[O]n Thursday morning, Pastor W. J. Mark Knutson of Augustana Lutheran Church said the "Lift Every Voice" campaign will instead set its sights on the 2020 ballot.
"Our lightning speed as a team was just too fast for our opponents," Knutson said during a news conference. "They started flopping all over the field with every legal maneuver they could imagine. Oh, they are exhausted by the rightness of our cause. And we are just getting going."
Knutson said members of the campaign hope to qualify at least one gun control initiative for the 2020 election, to put pressure on lawmakers to pass similar legislation when the 2019 legislative session begins in January.
The “opponents” that Knutson mentioned included several Second Amendment supporters and gun rights groups, including the NRA and the Oregon Hunters Association, that petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court to review the ballot initiative.
Contrary to the pastor’s claims, however, the initiative’s negative evaluation by the court appears to have little if anything to do with fancy legal maneuvering by lawyers from the NRA or other similar organizations. Rather, it was the ballot initiative’s imprecise and inaccurate language describing its proposed gun control laws that doomed Initiative Petition 43’s certification, as is clearly explained in the court’s review of the initiative.
For example, according to the Supreme Court, one of the chief problems with the initiative was that it repeatedly suggested that the assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans would broadly allow for ownership of weapons and magazines covered under the initiative as long as they were registered with state police. In reality, Initiative Petition 43 would only have allowed for grandfathering Oregonians’ weapons and magazines if they were obtained prior to the bill’s passage:
We [the court] agree with petitioners [NRA et al.]… that the caption [part of the initiative] inaccurately describes the registration exception. By stating that assault weapons and large capacity magazines are prohibited “unless registered with state police,” the caption implies that the exception generally permits registered ownership after IP 43 goes into effect. But, unless a covered weapon or magazine is inherited later, the exception applies only at the outset—that is, to any person who possesses a prohibited weapon or magazine prior to the proposed measure becoming effective… No other person is permitted to register a covered item, at any time. The caption must be modified accordingly.
This failure to properly convey the true nature of the ban was also found by the court in other parts of the initiative’s language, including its more verbose “yes” result statement section and its even wordier summary. In both cases, despite having more freedom to properly describe the assault weapon and magazine bans, the ballot initiative was once again written to leave voters with a false impression that the bans would broadly allow for registered ownership and acquisition of assault weapons and magazines with a capacity of more than ten rounds after the initiative was passed.
According to the court’s review, the ballot initiative contained several other similarly misleading statements, including (but not limited to): 1) incorrectly describing current Oregon laws as prohibiting the purchase of guns by felons, the mentally ill, and others when the relevant laws actually bar all possessionof firearms by these people; and 2) falsely claiming that the initiative “maylimit” the use of defined assault weapons and high-capacity magazines when it definitely imposes many different specific restrictions on the use of such items.
Moreover, in concurrence with the anti-initiative petitioners, the Supreme Court found that the terms “assault weapon” and “large capacity magazine” were too vague and open to interpretation to be sufficiently informative to Oregonians who would vote on the proposal:
[W]e do agree (as does the Attorney General) that different voters reasonably could draw different meanings from the term “assault weapons”—some might think that it refers to only military-style weapons; some might think that it refers to the types of weapons that are described in IP 43; and some might think that it refers to an even more broad group of weapons. Similarly, different voters reasonably could draw different meanings from the term “large capacity magazines”—some thinking that it referred to magazines holding 10 rounds or fewer, but others thinking that it referred to magazines holding far more than 10 rounds.
Based on the above and other considerations, the Oregon Supreme Court unanimously referred Initiative Petition 43 back to the state attorney general to be re-written, a task which now appears unnecessary given the fact that the initiative’s supporters have backed down from pushing for their gun control proposals in 2018.