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After Latest Mass Shooting, a Look at the Oregon County Sheriff Who Vowed to Ignore Gun Control Laws

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As President Obama called for new gun control reform measures, Thursday’s school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon has brought new attention to the actions of Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, who is investigating the shooting. In 2013, he wrote a letter to Vice President Joe Biden asking him not to tamper with the Second Amendment, writing, “Gun control is NOT the answer to preventing heinous crimes like school shootings. Any actions against, or in disregard for our U.S. Constitution and 2nd Amendment rights by the current administration would be irresponsible and an indisputable insult to the American people.” He went on to say, “I will NOT violate my Constitutional Oath. Therefore, the second purpose of this letter is to make notification that any federal regulation enacted by Congress or by executive order of the President offending the Constitutional rights of my citizens shall not be enforced by me or by my deputies, nor will I permit the enforcement of any unconstitutional regulations or orders by federal officers within the borders of Douglas County Oregon.” We speak to Jennifer Lynch of the Oregon Alliance for Gun Safety.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Portland, Oregon, where we’re joined by Jennifer Lynch from the Oregon Alliance for Gun Safety. The group includes more than 50 organizations that pushed for the passage of Oregon’s new Firearms Safety Act, which expands background checks in gun sales in Oregon. It was signed into law in May.

Jennifer Lynch, welcome to Democracy Now! First of all, talk about the reaction in the community to this horrific killing, the massacre that took place yesterday at Umpqua Community College.

JENNIFER LYNCH: Well, of course, the reaction is always horror, but, frankly, never surprise. These things happen entirely too often. It always feels like they could happen close to home. And this time, it was our turn.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it was especially ironic that this occurs only a couple of months after you had new laws for background checks in Oregon. Could you talk about your campaign there?

JENNIFER LYNCH: That’s right. So, for the third time in three years, the Oregon Legislature considered a bill expanding a background check on the sale of firearms to include every firearm sale. That includes private sales between two individuals, including two individuals who met online. This is a bill that gun violence prevention organizations in Oregon have been campaigning for since 2013, and we were met with resistance in the 2013 and 2014 state legislative sessions. And so, as such, we worked to change the state Legislature. This year, the bill was reintroduced and was able to pass both chambers. It was signed into law by the governor this May.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the chief sponsor of the law, his significance?

JENNIFER LYNCH: Yeah, Senator Floyd Prozanski of Eugene, Oregon, is the chief sponsor of that bill and has carried it for the last three legislative sessions. Senator Prozanski himself has been touched by gun violence. He is a longtime gun owner and a hunter and protective of Second Amendment rights, but also believes this is one small thing that we can do to make Oregon’s communities safer. And there simply is no excuse for inaction at this point.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about John Hanlin, the sheriff of Douglas County, who is leading the investigation. I want to turn to a clip of his. He is in the lead in the investigation into the shooting of Umpqua Community College, but in April, as the Oregon state Legislature held hearings for new legislation to expand background checks to private gun sales, Hanlin testified against the measure.

SHERIFF JOHN HANLIN: This law is not going to protect citizens of Oregon in that it is going to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. It will not do that. We have laws that prohibit the possession of other things, like methamphetamine, and it doesn’t stop it. What I fear most is that we are going to create criminals, and specifically felonous criminals, out of some of our most ordinary, normal, law-abiding citizens. Furthermore, I don’t know how I can, at least in my county, begin to try to enforce this law. Being a timber harvest-dependent county such as we are, our budget is continuously shrinking, to the point that there are times when we have a difficult time simply responding to domestic disturbances, vehicle crashes, the ordinary calls for service that happen every day. And to expect local law enforcement to run down and do an investigation into whether or not an individual, a private individual, has conducted a background check is nearly impossible. I urge you to consider this bill closely and to not pass it. It simply isn’t going to work for us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin earlier this year. But in 2013—and remember, he is the person now investigating the shooting at Umpqua Community College—he wrote a letter to Vice President Joe Biden. In the letter, he asked the vice president not to tamper with the Second Amendment, writing, quote, “Gun control is NOT the answer to preventing heinous crimes like school shootings. Any actions against, or in disregard for our U.S. Constitution and 2nd Amendment rights by the current administration would be irresponsible and an indisputable insult to the American people.”

He goes on to say, quote, “I will NOT violate my Constitutional Oath. Therefore, the second purpose of this letter is to make notification that any federal regulation enacted by Congress or by executive order of the President offending the Constitutional rights of my citizens shall not be enforced by me or by my deputies, nor will I permit the enforcement of any unconstitutional regulations or orders by federal officers within the borders of Douglas County Oregon.”

Your response to the sheriff and his stands in the past on this issue of greater or more expanded gun control?

JENNIFER LYNCH: Sheriff Hanlin forgets that commonsense and reasonable, moderate gun safety regulations have in fact been held up as constitutional, first of all, repeatedly. And secondly, he forgets that, as a law enforcement officer, his first duty is to protect the people of Douglas County, not to advance his own political agenda or his own interpretation of what the Second Amendment does and does not allow for. The true insult to the people of Douglas County is that they were victims of a horrendous mass shooting on the campus of a public institution. And that truly is where his attention should be focused today. How did a young man accumulate so many weapons and so much ammunition? How was he able to carry it unnoticed into classrooms and open fire, taking the lives of classmates, innocent bystanders? Truly, this—this is the insult that has been forced upon us. And this is where I would ask that his attention lie in the days and weeks ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Lynch, what do you know about the young man and the weapons that he used and where he got them?

JENNIFER LYNCH: Well, very little. You know, as I’m sure you’ve seen, it’s all very early. It sounds as though, you know, he had the sorts of guns that any American can purchase legally. And I think that what is probably more interesting is that there were, presumably, people who knew how many guns he had in his house. And it’s sounding as though there were people who knew that he might have had ill intent.

One of the members of our organization is Sandy Hook Promise. They’re launching a campaign this October called “Say Something Week,” starts October 19th. They’re encouraging parents, teachers, students and everybody to speak out when there’s a situation that looks like it might result in this kind of violence. And I would hope everyone would go to SandyHookPromise.org, check out that campaign and learn about tools that you can use in order to get in front of it, when you understand that there could be a danger like this in your community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jennifer Lynch, next year will mark really the 50th anniversary of the first mass killings in modern American history. There was Richard Speck, who shot and killed eight nurses in 1966. And then, a few weeks later, Charles [Whitman] climbed to the tower of the University of Texas at Austin and killed, I think it was, 12 or 13 people, wounded 32. But we’re seeing now, in the last year, a shooting—one of these mass shootings every day, on average. So, are we losing the battle here to be able to contain the proliferation of guns in America and continued violence against our own citizens?

JENNIFER LYNCH: It’s hard to say that we’re losing the battle, because the battle is just starting. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, an organization called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was created to help organize mothers in the same way that Mothers Against [Drunk] Driving organized mothers in the ’80s. And that organization has grown into a larger grassroots organization, Everytown for Gun Safety. They are our partners here in Oregon, along with several other national organizations. And we are starting to fight back. Poll after poll after poll shows that Americans, in a great majority, want commonsense gun safety regulations to be passed at the state and federal level. And we just have not been organized in a way to ask for them. And the longer we go without demanding action on gun violence prevention, the more—the more of these battles that we are losing.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Lynch, finally, this isn’t the first time there’s been a mass killing in the neighborhood, is that right?

JENNIFER LYNCH: Oregon has had its fair share.

AMY GOODMAN: Back in 1998 at Thurston High School, which is in Springfield, Oregon, just outside Eugene?

JENNIFER LYNCH: That’s right. That’s right, yes. There was a high school student, a high school student who brought a gun to school after killing his parents and then killed classmates. One of our state legislators was a principal in a nearby school district when that happened, and that shooting still resonates here a decade later—decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue to follow this, certainly. Jennifer Lynch, thanks so much for being with us, spokesperson for the Oregon Alliance for Gun Safety. The group includes more than 50 organizations that pushed for the passage of Oregon’s new Firearms Safety Act, which expands background checks in gun sales in the state. It was signed into law in May.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re joined by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis on their new film. It had its U.S. premiere last night in New York. Stay with us.

WATCH RELATED SEGMENT: 'This Has Become Routine': Obama Speaks Out After 10 Killed in Oregon in Year’s 294th Mass Shooting

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