John Hallett of Fayette, a National Rifle Association-certified training instructor, said Wednesday that proposing a ban or restriction on one type of gun is similar to banning all red cars because a lot of people die in car accidents every year.
Criminals still will be able to get guns and high capacity magazines, he said.
“It simply makes all of us more vulnerable,” he said. “We’re just honest people who enjoy a hobby.”
Even so, Hallett said he doesn’t see a problem with expanding the background-check system for gun purchases. But a renewed ban on military-style assault weapons isn’t going to help, he said.
“There are too many people where something is twisted in their system and they don’t connect the dots,” he said. “Guns aren’t evil; it’s people who are evil.”
Hallett’s comments were among several reactions — many of them mixed — offered by people in the region Wednesday after President Barack Obama’s unveiling of sweeping proposals to curb gun violence. The proposals, which include background checks on all gun sales, reinstating a ban on military-style weapons and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, came a month after the deadly elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said he looks forward to working with the Legislature to address gun control while protecting Second Amendment rights.
“I am in favor of enhancing treatment of those people that are suffering from mental illness,” Liberty said. “Additionally, I am in favor of universal background checks. We must do a better job of sharing information among agencies.”
The Maine Sheriff’s Association is planning a breakfast with state lawmakers this morning during which instructors will lead an informational session aimed at providing an overview of firearms, including the difference between military-style rifles and hunting rifles, a description of commonly used handguns and the difference between concealed-weapons laws and open-carry laws.
Liberty said such sessions will help legislators make informed decisions.
“Almost without exception, most citizens of the state of Maine and of the United States are responsible, well-intended gun owners,” Liberty said. “We must be cautious not to overreact.”
Universal background checks also have the support of Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, a retired state trooper who also would like to see Maine set up a database with the names of anyone who has been committed involuntarily to a mental institution so that person would not be allowed to buy guns.
“Right now, if somebody applies for a gun permit in Maine, there’s no mental health check,” he said.
As a member of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Marks said he expects to see 50 or more gun control bills this session. However, he does not support renewing the ban on military-style assault weapons and thinks the limit on rounds in a clip would be ineffective.
“As a trooper, I never encountered an assault weapon,” he said.
Brad Varney, 71, of Richmond, owner of Varney’s Clay Sports in Richmond, a shooting instructor for more than 45 years, said he doesn’t think extending background checks on firearms to all gun sales would help.
“Criminals are still going to get guns through illegal means,” Varney said. “If that is not so, then we wouldn’t have a drug problem, because drugs are illegal.”
Varney said the previous, 10-year ban on military-style weapons had no effect on gun violence, and he doubts reinstituting it would, either.
“An assault weapon is nothing but a semi-automatic rifle,” Varney said. “Deer hunters, coyotes hunters … use them all over the world.”
Rachel Healy, director of communications and public education at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said that although the ACLU typically doesn’t weigh in on gun control discussions, other aspects of the proposals cause concern. She said the ACLU is worried that the president’s executive order to help communities hire more police officers trained to work in schools could have unintended consequences.
For example, an increase of school police officers can lead to more students being pushed out of schools and into the juvenile justice system, she said.
“Across the country we have found that impact of overpolicing can be especially harsh on students of color,” she said.
Healy said lawmakers shouldn’t rush this type of policy for schools without understanding the negative unintended consequences.
“We should not be turning our learning environments into fortresses,” she said.
Maine Parent Teacher Association President Ginny Mott said her board agrees with the National PTA, which for two decades has endorsed some of the policies Obama supports, such as universal background checks and a ban on military-style assault weapons.
“There have long been reasonable restrictions on things like free speech to balance keeping people safe and yet protecting the freedom of all citizens,” Mott said. “So in that same vein, it’s entirely appropriate to restrict access to firearms and ammunition, as the president is proposing.”
Mott, who lives in rural Penobscot County, said the problem of violence in American society is complex and involves more than access to high-powered weapons. She also wants to see mental health needs be addressed.
Chuck Cabannis, 58, of Vassalboro, owns Fox Firearms, a gun shop and shooting range that also offers gun safety classes. He said attendance at his classes has doubled or tripled since the Newtown shootings.
“I’ve had people come that have never shot a gun before and leave wanting to buy one,” he said.
“Like anything else, a firearm is a piece of property and a tool. You have to be responsible with them, and I think that’s something we can’t legislate. People have to learn to lock their guns and keep them safe,” he said.
Cabannis, a former police officer of 14 years who worked in Bar Harbor and Winslow, said people are afraid of guns because they see violence on television.
“What they don’t see is the number of times a gun saved someone from a rape or a home invasion. Those statistics don’t exist; they aren’t reported,” he said.
Jeff Weinstein, president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, offered mixed responses in a statement Wednesday, saying he supports vigorous prosecution of illegal gun-trafficking and universal background checks, though he has concerns about how such checks would be expanded. Weinstein, who previously suggested teachers should be armed to prevent attacks like the one in Newtown, said he was disappointed Obama didn’t offer a detailed plan “for a complete review concerning mental health issues, a major factor in most mass murders.”
Weinstein also said he was surprised Obama didn’t specifically address violent video games and movies.
William Harwood, of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, said he is pleased with the president’s proposal.
“The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary really changed the landscape of this discussion,” he said. “The big question is whether there is enough public support, but I think people are starting to feel like ‘enough is enough.’”
David Trahan, executive director of the Augusta-based Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a former Republican state lawmaker, said none of the Obama proposals surprised him.
He said the alliance’s board of directors plans to sift through the details of Obama’s plan, but he opposes any further restrictions on guns. He does support more background checks and the sharing of information about people with mental illness.
“Firearms for self-defense are different than those for hunting, so we shouldn’t compare the two,” he said. “But if we further regulate guns for self-defense, we’re limiting people’s ability to defend themselves.”
Varney, the Richmond shooting instructor, said he believes the new gun control proposals generally would make it harder for law-abiding citizens to get firearms, but not make the public safer.
“I don’t see any proposals that are really going to stop this type of action,” Varney said. “Putting restrictions on law-abiding citizens is a farce. Chicago has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and every day there are killings out there. I’ve been a firearms instructor for 45 years, taught hundreds and hundreds of people how to use firearms. I’m not worried about those people. I’m worried about someone who gets a gun illegally. If wackos want to kill people, they’re going to find a way to do it.
“The Second Amendment was not about hunting or target shooting,” he added. “The Second Amendment was about protecting the citizenry from an overzealous, tyrannical government.”
Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
This story was written by staff writers Sue Cover, Craig Crosby, Keith Edwards, Paul Koenig, Susan McMillan and Rachel Ohm.