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Giffords' husband Mark Kelly backs Oregon gun bill

SALEM — The husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Mark Kelly, appeared before Oregon legislators on Thursday to speak in favor of expanded background checks for gun sales, as Republicans contended the Democrat-proposed legislation is "political posturing" as Oregon's May primary nears.

Kelly spoke at a contentious public hearing before the state Senate Judiciary Committee, which began examination of a bill that would expand background checks to include private party gun sales. Kelly said he and Giffords support gun rights for sport, self-defense and "part of our national heritage." But he said Oregon's current law has "a loophole you could drive a small truck through" that could allow criminals to obtain guns through sales arranged privately.

"When dangerous people get guns, we are all vulnerable," said Kelly, whose wife was one of 13 people injured in 2011 as she met with constituents in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed.

Sitting next to Kelly was Gov. John Kitzhaber, who said criminal background checks "have proven to be a reasonable and effective method" for keeping guns out of criminal's hands. He said he supported the bill to expand those checks and hoped it would pass.

Gun-rights activists also showed up for the hearing. They contended that the bill, SB 1551, would be ineffective and unenforceable.

Daniel Reid, a representative of the National Rifle Association, cited Oregon State Police data indicating that less than 1 percent of the background checks in 2012 and 2013 resulted in denials of gun purchases. Reid said criminals get guns through illegal methods already and the Oregon bill would have "a disproportionate impact on law-abiding citizens."

Oregon law requires criminal background checks on those purchasing handguns from a licensed dealer or firearms from anyone at a gun show. It allows those selling guns to request background checks for sales not conducted at gun shows, but does not require them. As part of the background check, the seller must provide certain identifying information about the buyer and the firearm.

Kevin Starrett, director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, argued that current law already has set up a registry of gun owners and weapons. He said gun owners worry it could someday lead to a confiscation of firearms.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, called Starrett's comments a "conspiracist perspective" and said the committee would consider any evidence that data was being improperly retained, if Starrett could provide it. Under Oregon law, the State Police are not allowed to retain information obtained from background checks for more than five years.

A similar bill, SB 700, was considered during the 2013 regular session but failed to pass out of the Judiciary Committee for a vote on the Senate floor.

Republican legislators have argued that Democrats revived the legislation mainly as a political show in advance of the May 20 primary.

After the Thursday hearing, two GOP state senators — Betsy Close of Albany and Jeff Kruse of Roseburg — issued a statement calling the legislation "political posturing in preparation for election season."

"It is disappointing that we are focusing on such a divisive topic when the issue that deserves our attention is mental health care," they said.