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Religious groups came together in Oregon to get gun control on the next ballot

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Oregon, a gun control measure will likely appear on the November ballot. It's an effort born primarily of religious rather than political organizing. Katia Riddle reports from Portland.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: A turning point for Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana was the Parkland shooting in Florida four years ago. After so many such tragedies, he was growing tired of listening to himself just talk about gun violence.

MICHAEL Z CAHANA: Yes, the rabbi can get up and can give yet another sermon. And I was giving a lot of sermons on this subject, and that's not enough.

RIDDLE: His faith and a feeling of desperation from his own congregation, Beth Israel, helped push him beyond thoughts and prayers.

CAHANA: We have to have action.

RIDDLE: Cahana led his Portland synagogue into an effort to change the law in Oregon. If Measure 17 passes, the state will require safety training and background checks for people purchasing guns. High-capacity magazines will be banned altogether.

CAHANA: And so when we were able to say, and here's something you can do, you can start gathering signatures right now to get this on the ballot - that got people engaged.

MARK KNUTSON: Synagogues, church, mosque, temples - that's where a lot of the good movements start.

RIDDLE: Pastor Mark Knutson is standing in the basement of his Augustana Lutheran Church in northeast Portland. It's buzzing with energy. A dozen volunteers sort signatures in tidy piles. Knutson says it's in part history that inspires this effort.

KNUTSON: The civil rights movement came out of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, you know, on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery. And I've been there. I've done those - out of a little church basement came amazing things.

RIDDLE: Knutson recruited rabbis and imams, Native American spiritual leaders and evangelical ministers. Getting the measure on the Oregon ballot requires a hundred and twelve thousand signatures. It's a number, they say, they've surpassed with a surge of support after recent shootings.

SIMONE MARTIN: After Uvalde, especially, we sent, on the first day out, 800 packets for people who wanted to be circulators.

RIDDLE: Simone Martin is the campaign organizer here. She says at one point, they were hurting for circulators to gather signatures. After Uvalde, they had more than they knew what to do with.

MARTIN: Oh, my gosh. It was almost overwhelming. Like, I still have people waiting to volunteer now.

RIDDLE: At one point, volunteer Joe Paterno was collecting signatures seven days a week. He's a member of this Lutheran congregation.

JOE PATERNO: I can't separate my faith from this work and this kind of movement.

RIDDLE: In the days leading up to the signature gathering deadline, Paterno is working outside a grocery store. Advocating for gun control, he says, is how he lives out his faith.

PATERNO: It's what we should all be about, is caring for each other.

RIDDLE: Despite the religious foundation of this effort, volunteers say God is not really a talking point in the campaign. Delivery driver Steve McMullen has just signed. He leans on his dolly while he chats with Paterno.

PATERNO: Whereas our best weapon is talking to each other.

STEVE MCMULLEN: Yeah.

PATERNO: Yes.

MCMULLEN: Or just using your feet and walking away from a situation.

RIDDLE: Mostly conversations go more like this one - volunteers appealing to people out of common sense. Rainer Gades also gathers signatures in this parking lot.

RAINER GADES: Coming from Germany, I never understood the gun culture here in the United States.

RIDDLE: Gades says after more than 15 years here, he's never stopped being shocked at how easily people can kill each other. He's wearing a cap that reads, out-of-the-closet atheist. He says it's the issue that drew him to this cause.

GADES: For me, it's a clear-cut thing. You know, less guns means less violence.

RIDDLE: He's just got a signature from Mary Elizabeth Smith. She says this effort won't eliminate gun violence, but it can't hurt.

MARY ELIZABETH SMITH: Even if it is just a Band-Aid, it's still something, you know?

RIDDLE: Got to start somewhere.

SMITH: Yeah, you got to start somewhere.

RIDDLE: Smith grew up Christian. She no longer considers herself a part of the church, but she says she still tries to live many of the teachings of Christ that she was raised with. She's happy to support this effort that was organized by people of faith.

SMITH: Yeah, it's great. Using religion for good is always a good thing.

RIDDLE: Smith says there's no use of an assault rifle that's Christ-like.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS SONG, "WINDOW SHOPPING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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