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A question of intimidation: Oregon lawmaker vs gun rights extremists

Oregon State Senator Ginny Burdick has always been a gun control advocate. She led the fight to close the gun show loophole more than a decade ago.

Oregon State Senator Ginny Burdick has always been a gun control advocate. She led the fight to close the gun show loophole more than a decade ago.

But the mall shooting at the Clackamas Town Center in her hometown of Portland last December inspired her to fight for stronger reforms, and she announced plans to introduce a bill to limit the capacity of gun magazines. Days later came the Newtown school shooting, which sparked a nationwide debate and pushed Burdick to fight even harder for gun-law reform.

“We were in the middle of a special session on a very important tax bill,” Burdick told The New York Times. “I was right on the middle of it. I said, ‘We’re going back to guns.’ ”

By the time the 2013 legislative session started, she'd decided to sponsor two more bills: one requiring background checks for private gun sales and another to ban guns on Oregon school property.

But the post-Newtown debate energized gun rights extremists in her state too. "The people who are causing all the problems in Oregon are the very small fringe," she explained on Tuesday's PoliticsNation.

At first Burdick received what she called “the usual threatening e-mails”--but then the protests went public. In January, gun activists patrolled a neighborhood in Southeast Portland (just across the river from Burdick's district) with rifles strapped to their backs, scaring residents. The following month, activists rallied at the State Capitol with guns, some standing armed inside the Capitol building, and intimidating lawmakers. Weeks later, they held a town hall, badgering Burdick's Democratic colleagues with aggressive questioning. One attendee carried a concealed weapon.

Then Burdick "got wind" that the gun extremists planned to crash her town hall as well. With Portland State University hosting the forum, she didn't want to "subject students to that kind of event" so she decided to call it off.

"When I cancelled the town hall meeting, I didn't want to say anything inflammatory," she explained, so she used the blanket excuse of a scheduling conflict. But gun advocates weren't content, and followed her to her home that night, sitting parked outside her driveway with a video camera rolling. That video was eventually posted to a web site run by Jeff Reynolds, who runs the Multnomah County Republican Party; he claims it was shot by a friend who was acting as a "citizen journalist" hoping to prove that she didn't really have a scheduling conflict as she had claimed. 

Burdick felt intimidated by the video posting, which disclosed her home address. "It creeped me out," she said, but insists that those fighting her gun reforms with such tactics are the exception, even among gun owners. "This is the fringe. This is not your regular gun owner."

"Unfortunately they are dominating the discussion right now," she also conceded. "What's really frightening is that it seems to work," Burdick said. "Politicians back down just because they don't want to take the harassment, and that's what results in no change."

Burdick, however, won't acquiesce to the pressure. "I refuse to be intimidated, because I just can't in good confidence back down after Newtown. I can't do it."

As for her colleagues, she thinks that gun control advocates must raise their voices to help convince them to make reforms. "The public is with us on reasonable gun laws. So if we can get the public to speak up, if we can get people's voices heard, we can do it, but if people remain silent I'm not very optimistic."