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Oregon Republican Lawmakers Face Gun-Rights Backlash Over New Law


After 17 people died in Parkland, Fla., Oregon became the first state to pass stiffer gun laws. One Republican lawmaker there said the thought of standing up to the National Rifle Association made him want to curl up in the fetal position. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Lauren Dake followed up with him this week and sends back this report.

LAUREN DAKE, BYLINE: Richard Vial is a gun guy. He's a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and represents a right-leaning district. Out on his farm, he's going through his gun safe with his son, Nate.

NATE VIAL: I have a couple of AR-15s.

RICHARD VIAL: So this is just a real standard small handgun. To load that up, all you do is just...


R. VIAL: ...Cock it.

DAKE: For years, Vial was a member of the NRA.

R. VIAL: Just like any other redneck farm boy, I've owned guns, and that's what you did. You joined the NRA (laughter).

DAKE: Oregon lawmakers voted this year to close what's been dubbed, the boyfriend loophole. The new law expands the number of people prohibited from owning guns to include intimate partners convicted of domestic violence or stalking, and not just married spouses.

It was a tough vote for Vial. He believed passionately that those convicted of domestic violence shouldn't have guns, whether it's someone's husband or boyfriend, but he knew people he respected might not understand his decision.

And the timing was hard to believe - just one day after the Parkland shooting. Even though the bill had nothing to do with the school shootings or Parkland, Vial said on the House floor, he couldn't help but think of his own school-age grandchildren.

R. VIAL: I remain committed to protecting of the rights of responsible citizens to keep and bear arms. Frankly, I pray that all of us can continue to work together.

DAKE: Now he's bracing for the political backlash. Much of the NRA's power is in its ability to organize its members at the grassroots level. When Oregon lawmakers were about to take the gun vote, Vial's son, Nate, was researching the bill and came across an action alert from the NRA. They urged him to tell his representative, in this case, his own dad, to vote, no.

Nate is proud of his dad for the vote he took, but others listened to the NRA. Thousands of emails flooded the lawmaker's inbox after the vote, showing the power the gun group has to quickly mobilize its base. Here's a sample.

R. VIAL: (Reading) I put up signs for you. You can count on me doing everything possible to make sure you do not get re-elected.

So there you go (laughter).

DAKE: Vial recently let his membership to the NRA lapse. He's still hoping the group can be part of the solution, but he's no longer comfortable with the NRA's no-compromise approach, and he isn't the only one. Two other Republicans joined Vial in voting to close the loophole. One is Knute Buehler, who is running for governor.

KNUTE BUEHLER: I've received a fair amount of complaints and angry emails, and that's OK.

DAKE: The other is Representative Julie Parrish.

JULIE PARRISH: I think that we have put a little bit too much of this debate on the issue groups and not on the actual policies themselves.

DAKE: All three lawmakers have been backed by the NRA previously, but they aren't worried about the political consequences. They can handle the emails. It's time to move beyond the rhetoric, they say, and focus on sensible gun control laws.

Back on the farm, Vial said he has no regrets about his vote, but he did draw a primary challenger.

R. VIAL: I sure did. I drew a very solid right primary opponent, probably going to hit me on the gun thing. We'll see. Yeah.

DAKE: The NRA hasn't said who they'll support in the race, if anyone. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Dake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Dake