Mainers are more likely to own guns than most Americans, but they’re also more supportive of increasing restrictions, such as banning semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines, according to a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll.
While the poll results appear contradictory, they reflect Maine’s traditional gun culture, said Scott Bahr, senior consultant with Portland-based Critical Insights, which conducted the poll for the newspaper between Jan. 7 and Jan. 9.
Mainers are fiercely protective of their gun rights — only 5 percent want to outlaw guns, according to the poll. Yet most Mainers view military-style weapons as being impractical for hunting and home protection, he said.
“Here, people take pride in their guns and have had guns in their families for generations,” Bahr said. “They don’t want an all-out ban, but they want some reasonable restrictions.”
The poll, based on telephone interviews with 600 adults in Maine, comes as both Congress and the Maine Legislature prepare to debate whether to increase regulations on firearms in response to the mass shooting last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. A lone gunman using assault weapons and high-capacity magazines killed 20 children and six educators.
A third of Mainers say the shooting has made them more likely to support stricter gun control laws, the poll found, and 79 percent of Mainers support some restrictions on owning guns.
The poll, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points for statewide results, also sheds light on differences in gender and region on gun control attitudes. Here are some of the poll’s key findings:
The majority of Maine adults — 55 percent — report having a gun on their property. That is 8 percentage points higher than the response to the same question in a national Gallup poll conducted in October.
Among the residents who personally own or have guns in their household, 73 percent use their guns for hunting.
The subgroup of Maine residents who are most likely to favor some restrictions on guns are those who have guns in their household but do not personally own the guns (91 percent).
Many women whose spouses own guns support more restrictions, such as Alisa Austin, 55, of Canton.
“I don’t see anything wrong with hunting guns and such, but I don’t see the need for automatics that keep shooting and shooting,” Austin said.
Her husband, who hunts deer, ducks and partridge, disagrees, she said. “He’s not for gun control. He doesn’t like the gun-control mentality.”
Many Mainers own multiple guns. Charles Harrison, 73, who lives on a 100-acre farm in Lyman, owns five guns, including a shotgun and small-caliber rifles. He uses the guns to kill small animals on his farm.
Because Maine has more hunters than most other states, children here are better educated about gun safety, he said. He said there should be no government restrictions on gun ownership, except to keep them out of the hands of criminals and mentally ill people.
“As far as regulations, what we have now is pretty good,” he said.
SUPPORT FOR GUN LIMITS
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll found that 79 percent of Mainers support some restrictions on owning guns, and 61 percent support banning high-capacity ammunition clips that can hold more than 10 bullets.
Slightly more than half of Mainers — 51 percent — support banning semi-automatic guns, which automatically reload when the trigger is pulled. Nationally, 44 percent of Americans support such a ban, according to a Pew Research poll conducted after the Sandy Hook shootings.
The poll also found a gender divide: 85 percent of Maine women favor some restrictions on guns, compared to 72 percent of Maine men.
Sarah Russell, a Cumberland mother with four young children, said her husband has killed rodents on their 40-acre farm with a shotgun, and her grandfather was an avid duck hunter.
She said hunting is an important part of Maine’s heritage, and she doesn’t want to interfere with it. Still, the Sandy Hook shootings were frightening, she said, and she wants to see tighter restrictions on assault weapons, magazine capacity and also the requirement for background checks for private sales. In Maine, such sales are exempt from background checks.
“More background checks doesn’t hurt anybody,” she said. “The NRA’s stance that more guns increases people’s safety is really harming the rights of responsible gun owners.”
The high percentage of Mainers willing to ban semi-automatic weapons reflects a widespread misunderstanding about the weapon, said Thom Watson, a former state lawmaker from Bath who serves on the board of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
He said self-loading rifles have a valid place in the hunting world and that many popular hunting rifles are semi-automatics. They’re easier to use and clean, he said.
Maine hunters would be much more willing to give up high-capacity magazines, which are not useful for hunting, he said, adding that his opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
“Nobody I know carries them.”
Gun ownership is significantly higher in the northern half of the state, with 68 percent of residents in Aroostook, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties reporting that they have a gun on their property, compared to 46 percent of residents in York and Cumberland counties.
In the north, 40 percent support a ban on semi-automatic weapons, while 56 percent in the south support such a ban.
In the north, 54 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines, while 63 percent in the south support such a ban.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said the poll results do not surprise him. Maine gun owners and sportsmen are responsible people, and many could consider supporting reasonable restrictions, he said.
Still, the strident rhetoric of anti-gun advocates may cause gun owners to resist change, particularly in rural areas, he said.
“People who live in rural parts of the state are strongly opposed to gun regulations,” he said. “The gun is precious to them for defending their family. They are not going to give it up.”
With about 180,000 licensed hunters, Maine has more hunters per capita than most states. A densely populated state such as Massachusetts, for example, has five times the population but only a third of the number of hunters.
Unlike Massachusetts, though, Maine has some of the least-restrictive gun laws in the nation.
Gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, have enjoyed considerable clout in the Maine Legislature, with both Republicans and Democrats. But public opinion about gun violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings may cause lawmakers to reconsider their reluctance to anger the gun rights lobby, said William Harwood, founder of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence. He noted that Maine lawmakers this year are expected to submit about 50 bills aimed at curbing gun violence.
“It is time for our elected officials to act in response to the majority of Maine citizens, not a small but vocal minority who might have extremist views about gun rights,” Harwood said.
Bill Diamond, a former lawmaker from Windham who last year stepped down after 18 years in the Legislature, said he doesn’t recall any significant gun restrictions that were passed during his tenure.
This year might be different, he said, because the public wants lawmakers to take action in response to the Sandy Hook shootings. But they also want to protect the rights of Mainers to own guns, said Diamond, a Democrat who co-chaired the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee from 2005 to 2008.
Diamond said Mainers strongly believe that gun owners have rights, but at the same time they want gun owners to follow rules designed to protect the public. “They believe you can have those rules and still respect the rights of gun owners,” he said.
Gun rights advocates in the past have successfully blocked proposed gun restrictions because many Mainers have guns and will vote only for candidates endorsed by gun rights groups, said George Smith, former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
But the Sandy Hook shootings have changed the political climate, he said, and gun groups are now more willing to consider some new regulations as long as they are part of a comprehensive approach that includes other reforms, such as finding better ways to identify and treat mentally ill people who are violent.
“It’s not just about guns,” he said. “If all we do is that, we have failed.”
Edith Frost, 69, of Oakland, said she has mixed feelings on the issue. She said her father, a farmer, hunted deer to feed his family. At the same time, she said, something needs to be done to stop mass shootings.
“There is a fine line, and I don’t know where it is,” she said. “On one hand, I don’t want to stop people from hunting. It’s not just a sport. Men hunt to put food on the table. On the other hand, you’ve got in Connecticut all those kids killed.”
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: