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Urban-Rural Split in Ore. Roils Move To Ban Guns at School

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A cultural split between urban and rural Oregonians is creating a rough political ride for proposed legislation that would prohibit guns and other weapons on school campuses.

The bill, prompted by recent gun-possession incidents on suburban campuses, would elevate possession of a firearm or other "dangerous weapon'' in a school from a misdemeanor to a felony.

While seen by many from the more densely settled part of the state as a sensible response to the growing problem of school violence, observers suggest, the bill is widely perceived as a threat to freedom by rural residents, for whom hunting and guns are an integral part of life.

The measure passed the Senate last month and could be considered as early as this week by the House judiciary committee. But its chances may be slim given the control of the House by Republicans, many of whom represent the rural areas that oppose controls on guns.

The bill has the support of major education groups, including the state school boards association, school superintendents, and the Oregon Education Association, as well as the association of chiefs of police.

Opposing it are the National Rifle Association and a number of lawmakers representing rural residents, who do not want their hunting routines, for example, to be upset.

Concern Over Student Hunters

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jeannette Hamby, a Republican, had to amend the legislation significantly before it could pass the Senate, and even then it just barely won a majority.

Ms. Hamby dropped, for example, a provision in the original bill to exclude handguns from a zone within 1,000 feet of a school, similar to a ban in Oregon and other states on drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.

But, despite N.R.A. opposition, Ms. Hamby said she would stand by the bill's prohibition on possession of concealed weapons on campus, even for those licensed to carry them.

One concern expressed by rural lawmakers is that the bill would preclude 18-year-old students who are licensed to carry guns from being able to keep weapons at school so that they can go hunting after school, according to Dan Jarman, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Larry L. Campbell.

Ms. Hamby said she is willing to amend the bill to exempt those students who, during hunting season, keep a weapon unloaded and locked up while at school.

A Symbolic Conflict

But, according to William Lunch, an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University, what threatens the legislation is not so much a debate about specific provisions as a more symbolic conflict over how urban and rural people feel about guns.

"The bulk of voters, I suspect, in urban areas perceive guns as symbolic of urban violence,'' Mr. Lunch said.

Typical of that perspective are the views expressed by the educator who first suggested the bill, Superintendent Nikki L. Squire of the Hillsboro Union High School District in suburban Portland.

Ms. Squire, whose district has had to contend for the first time this year with students carrying loaded guns to school, said she thought the measure was necessary in part because the current misdemeanor status of school gun possession effectively means no punishment for a juvenile offender.

"I can't understand,'' Ms. Squire said, "why any rational person wouldn't be supportive of something that is limited to the school setting and is clearly so protective of youngsters.''

On the other hand, Mr. Lunch observed, "guns for rural folks are symbolic of freedom.''

The feeling is that "a whole lifestyle is under attack and disappearing,'' Mr. Lunch said.

Rural residents of eastern and southern Oregon "enjoy carrying their weapons,'' Ms. Hamby acknowledged.

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