Gov. Kate Brown Hopes to Take Guns Away From Stalkers and Abusive Boyfriends. She’ll Need the Help of a Longtime Rival.

“Any time the word ‘gun’ appears in a bill, it’s a heavy lift.”

For Gov. Kate Brown, the 35-day February legislative session boils down to one bill—a gun control measure that previously died in the Oregon Senate.

Last week, Brown's priority legislation, House Bill 4145, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee by a 7-2 vote, garnering two extraordinarily rare pro-gun control votes from Republicans, state Reps. Rich Vial (R-Hillsboro) and Andy Olson (R-Albany).

The bill establishes a procedure for taking guns away from those convicted of stalking an intimate partner, and expands the state's authority to take guns away from abusers—not just spouses, but any person who has lived with or had a sexual relationship with the victim.

By the standards of gun control, closing the so-called "boyfriend loophole" is a fairly modest tweak, although a similar bill died in the Senate without a vote in 2017.

That's where it's probably headed again—to a Democratically controlled upper chamber where gun bills and other progressive legislation often die, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Senate 17 to 13.

Penny Okamoto, executive director of Ceasefire Oregon, which supports gun control measures, says the show of House Republican backing is likely to set up a showdown in the Senate.

"We have support from a Democratic governor and a Democratic House," Okamoto says. "And with these House Republicans supporting the bill, it's going to be extremely disappointing if it doesn't pass the Senate."

Even though the Senate majority is by essentially the same margin as Democrats' 35-to-25 lead in the House, senators under the leadership of Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) have proven far less friendly than House members on a wide range of progressive issues, ranging from tenant protections to family medical leave to environmental safeguards.

The highest-profile legislation introduced this session is the so-called "cap and invest" bills, carbon reduction measures a decade in the making. But they're on life support because Courtney signaled a lack of interest in pursuing controversial, complex bills this session.

The gun control legislation will be a test of wills: Brown's and Courtney's. Who wins will signal whether the governor can deliver a high-profile win in an election year.

Last month, Brown released a document highlighting issues important to her in the February session.

Those issues included rural economic development, beginning to address the state's unfunded pension liability, spending government dollars wisely and, most concretely, House Bill 4145, the boyfriend loophole bill.

Two dozen states, including gun-friendly Utah and Louisiana, have passed versions of the gun bill, but Oregon lags behind neighboring blue states in terms of passing gun control laws. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives California an A for its gun laws, Washington gets a B, and Oregon a C.

State Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which heard the gun bill last week, says Brown's office called him a couple of months ago to urge him to carry the bill this time.

"Any time the word 'gun' appears in a bill, it's a heavy lift," Barker says. Scores of gun rights supporters submitted comments to Barker's committee last week, urging them to kill Brown's bill.

"Gun owners have concerns," says Barker, a retired Portland detective. "I've got concerns myself, as a law-abiding gun owner, but this bill is about people who beat their spouses or partners. They should not have guns."

Barker says he was pleasantly surprised when his GOP colleagues, Vial and Olson, joined him in voting "yes" on Brown's bill last week.

"Getting Republican votes on a gun bill is new," Barker says. "But you never know about the Senate—they killed the 'Charleston loophole' bill."

The Charleston loophole, a provision that allows gun dealers to sell guns to buyers if background checks aren't completed within three days, permitted Dylann Roof to buy the weapon he used to kill nine people in 2015 in a Charleston, S.C., church. Yet in 2017, the Senate rejected a bill to close the loophole.

Can Brown get a better result this time, as she gears up for a re-election bid against the likely GOP nominee, state Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend)?

The answer largely turns on the response of one man: Courtney.

Courtney and Brown have a long and complicated relationship. Courtney edged out Brown in a bitter race for Senate president in 2003 and they've coexisted uneasily since, first with Brown as Senate majority leader, then as secretary of state from 2009 to 2015.

Last year, lawmakers and lobbyists say, Courtney gave Republicans an effective veto over many bills, requiring any bill that came to the Senate floor have the support of at least one GOP senator.

It's not clear yet whether the bill will get any GOP votes in the Senate.

"There is strong opposition from Senate Republicans," says Senate GOP spokeswoman Tayleranne Gillespie. And one Democrat, Sen. Chuck Riley (D-Hillsboro), is also ailing and may miss much of the session, which could cost a "yes" vote.

So will Courtney move Brown's bill? Courtney's spokesman, Robin Maxey, is cagey. He says his boss is watching the bill with interest.

"He was encouraged to see bipartisan support for House Bill 4145 in the House Judiciary Committee," Maxey said in an email. "And [Courtney] hopes the measure can gain bipartisan support in the Senate as well."

Brown spokesman Bryan Hockaday says it's wrong to view HB 4145 as a test of her influence.

"Gov. Brown doesn't believe in litmus tests for leadership, she believes in doing the right thing for Oregonians," Hockaday says. "The true test should be whether or not the Legislature is willing to vote its conscience instead of playing politics with Oregonians' safety. Bills relating to firearms present many challenges in the Capitol, but the challenges faced by Oregonians demand that action must be taken."