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The Gun Battle

Several tragic shootings recently have fired up some Oregon lawmakers who want tougher gun laws even as rattled local residents react to Second Amendment advocates taking to the streets with rifles slung over their shoulders.

"Not too long ago I saw a guy walking down the street with a gun — a big, old scary gun," said Michelle Blum Atkinson. "It makes me feel a little threatened."

Atkinson, a Jackson County Democrat and local businesswoman, said her concern prompted her to consider organizing a forum with a panel of experts to get a better idea about the laws in Oregon regarding guns and gun ownership.

Even among law enforcement officials, the number of laws about guns can be confusing as they contend with inconsistencies between federal and state statutes.

With lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and throughout the U.S. demanding more gun restrictions, gun rights supporters have become more vocal and more visible as the national debate rages.

January could end up being one of the biggest months for concealed handgun license applications to the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, though numbers weren't immediately available.

"It was a huge month," said Andrea Carlson, spokeswoman for the sheriff.

Atkinson, who said she has fired guns, said her Republican father fears Democrats like herself want to take away everyone's guns. But many Democrats locally have told her they favor gun rights and are avid hunters.

"It's a topic that's on a lot of people's minds right now," Atkinson said.

With the shooting of 26 people in Newtown, Conn., fresh in everyone's minds, Atkinson said she has come to the realization that she is not sure what a citizen is entitled to do with a gun.

She said the issue hit home when she read news accounts of Warren R. Drouin, 22, of Medford, who openly carries an assault weapon on the streets of Medford and in other areas of the state.

Oregon already has a variety of laws that apply to gun ownership and the transport of guns that even confuse lawmakers.

"It is complex, and we don't know everything," said Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford Democrat and gun owner.

He is bracing for a gun rights rally that will be held outside the Salem capitol on Friday. Bates said legislators are asking for a legal opinion on Oregon's gun laws in light of the Friday rally.

A gun owner himself, Bates said he strongly favors Second Amendment rights, though he doesn't support assault-type weapons.

Bates, a Medford doctor, said he would also favor increased background checks, including some kind of system where a physician or psychiatrist could alert officials that a patient expressing violent thoughts shouldn't be able to purchase a gun.

The Oregon Department of Human Services has a similar program where counselors can help pull children out of abusive homes, he said.

Bates, unlike other Oregon lawmakers, said he would rather the federal government tackle new gun laws so they would be effective throughout the U.S.

Republican lawmakers in Salem, who are now the minority party this session, have generally expressed opposition to more gun laws, saying they would affect only law-abiding citizens.

As some legislators consider expanding Oregon's firearm laws, many residents think the state already has enough laws on the books and oppose restrictions on the sale of assault weapons.

"I don't think they need to take guns away," said Sean Crawford, a 30-year-old from White City who brought his 4-year-old stepdaughter, Elyanna, along with him for skeet shooting in White City.

Crawford said more than 99 percent of gun owners are responsible and law-abiding. Most gun owners favor the background checks that are already in place.

Crawford said criminals and those with mental problems have given gun owners like himself a bad rap.

"Generally, guns are pretty safe," he said.

Crawford said it is important for parents to teach their children gun safety.

"Train them young," he said. "Train them to respect the gun."

Crawford made a point of clicking the safety on his gun after he successfully shot every skeet ejected by his stepdaughter. He wears ear protection and makes sure his stepdaughter is wearing her ear protection properly. When he was finished shooting, Crawford picked up the empty shotgun shells lying on the ground.

"More people die behind the wheel of a car, but we're not talking about banning people from driving cars," he said.

Law enforcement has also become embroiled in the national gun debate. Sheriff Mike Winters has said he would not enforce any laws that circumvented the Second Amendment. Medford police Chief Tim George has said he favors restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines and wants more done to keep those with mental illnesses away from guns.

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said he's not sure what impact restricting firearm sales among private parties would have on crime locally.

"It's kind of a mixed bag," he said. "When we arrest someone for a gun crime, it's not necessarily a gun they purchased themselves. Often they got the gun from an acquaintance or it has been stolen." Criminals are not going to go through a background check, Budreau said.

Sometimes it is difficult to figure out what gun laws apply to a given situation, he said.

"There are a lot of laws out there and even for law enforcement the laws are confusing," Budreau said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

Sean Crawford and his stepdaughter Elyannah, 4, shoot skeet Wednesday at the Jackson County Parks Shooting Range. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch