State lawmakers expect a wave of gun control bills in the wake of the mass shooting in Connecticut that claimed 28 lives, including 20 school children. But even as the details of the massacre embolden calls for additional background checks or limiting the bullet capacity of some firearms, such legislation faces an uphill battle in Maine, a state that has previously rejected similar measures and recently loosened state gun laws.
Over the past two years the Legislature has passed laws that allow concealed weapons permit holders to stow their guns in their vehicles on public property, including parking lots at the capitol complex in Augusta, prisons and courthouses. Over objections of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, lawmakers also passed a companion bill allowing employees with concealed weapons permits to leave their guns locked in their cars at work.
The legislation is less controversial than so-called stand-your-ground law that some blamed for the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, or proposals that allow guns on college campuses. Nonetheless, Maine is part of a national proliferation of pro-gun bills that appear to defy President Barack Obama’s belief that lack of gun regulation in the country has led to too many gun-related tragedies.
The recent loosening of Maine gun laws was overseen by the previous Republican-led Legislature. Democrats have regained the majority, but so far the new leaders appear cool to reacting to the Connecticut shootings with a sweeping overhaul of Maine’s gun laws.
In a written statement, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said there isn’t a simple answer to the mass killings, but a solution involves “law enforcement, educators, mental health providers and family members.”
Ericka Dodge, Alfond’s spokeswoman, said that while the Connecticut shooting was a cultural tipping point for action, the policy response would be broader than access to guns.
“This isn’t just about guns,” Dodge said. “It’s about our mental health services and securing our schools.”
Other Democratic lawmakers agreed.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, said that while there holes in the state policies governing access to firearms, filling them would only address part of the problem.
“The real theme here is that violence is the default answer to some people affected by mental illness,” said Dion, adding that “when it spins out of control, other people pay high consequences.”
The hints of a multi-pronged policy approach echo messaging on the national level. Despite Obama’s recent vow to prevent future mass killings, his administration has indicated gun control won’t be the only focus.
Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, told reporters Monday that gun violence was “a complex problem that will require a complex solution.”
Obama has previously expressed support for reinstating the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired several years ago.
Gun control advocates say the time for the assault weapons ban is now. In Maine, advocates held a vigil Sunday night in Portland stressing that same point. They also called for reforms in Maine, including background checks for gun purchases at gun shows and private sales and limiting the size of a firing magazine.
Thomas Franklin, a board member with Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, urged lawmakers to stand up to the National Rifle Association. Franklin said Maine could show the nation that grief can be turned into action.
Gun control advocates blame the deep-pocket NRA and its influence on state and federal lawmakers for a proliferation of pro-gun laws amid increasing examples of violence.
The Sunlight Foundation reported Monday that the NRA this year spent more than 4,100 times as much on the federal election as the nation’s leading gun control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, $24.28 million to $5,816. The NRA has spent 73 times more than the Brady Campaign lobbying the 112th Congress.
The NRA’s political action committee has spent more than $137,200 on Maine legislative elections since 2002. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, primarily a hunting and gaming advocacy group that doesn’t always align with NRA interests, has spent more than $175,000. Richard Dyke, who once owned Bushmaster Firearms in Windham, has spent more than $68,000 on Maine elections and legislative candidates.
By contrast, the PAC for Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence has spent $9,228 since 2002.
Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence has spent more lobbying state lawmakers than the NRA since 2002, $43,799 to $29,125. SAM has spent $110,039 over the same period.
Nonetheless, there’s a sense among gun control advocates that lawmakers fear the NRA’s ability to spend to defeat them at the ballot box.
Gaining the NRA’s endorsement can be a powerful ally. A 2011 report by the Pew Center on the States noted that Democratic lawmakers had touted pro-gun policies to make inroads in conservative legislative and congressional districts. The report also noted that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, was “a proud gun owner who has long championed the Second Amendment” before getting shot in 2011.
It’s not clear if Maine lawmakers have made a political calculation to acquiesce to the pro-gun lobby. What is clear is that stricter gun control bills have not gone very far in Maine, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in control.
The most recent gun-control defeat came in 2009 when the Democratic-led Legislature unanimously spiked a bill that would have forced gun show sellers to perform background checks on buyers before selling them firearms. The proposal elicited significant public debate, but it was unanimously rejected by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. The bill died without a vote in either the House or the Senate.
Bills requiring dealers to provide trigger locks on handguns, assault weapons ban legislation to replace the 2004 expiration of the federal law and other measures have all been defeated.
Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the House Republican leader, said the state’s gun laws reflect the values of its residents. Fredette said it was appropriate to have a discussion about what caused the Connecticut tragedy, but the dialogue shouldn’t begin and end with taking guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.
State Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, anticipated that lawmakers will see a host of gun control bills this session. Haskell, a concealed firearms permit holder, gun owner and hunter, said that the proposals would go beyond an emotional response to the Connecticut killings.
“I don’t want people to end up with a false sense of security,” she said. “I don’t think there’s an easy solution until we can understand what drives somebody to go to a school, deliberately target children. It surpasses any kind of understanding.”
Dion said that any substantive proposal would require input from the NRA and groups like the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
David Trahan, executive director of SAM, said his group would give thoughtful consideration to any proposal. SAM already partners with gun control groups promoting voluntary background checks and fire safety education. However, Trahan said, lawmakers should be wary of people seizing on tragic events to advance laws that infringe on “Second Amendment rights.”
Whatever the Legislature does will likely require involvement with the NRA. The group has been relatively quiet in the aftermath of the Connecticut shooting. In the past, the organization’s has reacted to any curbing of gun access with intransigence.
Dion said he hoped the NRA was re-evaluating that response.
“I rather hope that they’re reflecting on what’s happened and realize that the proper response is one that comes as citizens, not just a lobbying group,” Dion said
Steve Mistler — 791-6345