The response in Maine to President Obama’s long-awaited gun control package was predictably mixed, reflecting the nearly impossible task awaiting the administration.
The centerpieces of the plan unveiled Wednesday include background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on sales of assault rifles and a limit on high-capacity magazines or clips.
The president also called for more funding for mental health services and school safety, and better sharing of information.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a former Republican state lawmaker, said none of the proposals surprised him.
He said the alliance’s board of directors plans to review 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.”
Trahan said he thinks that leaders in Washington and Augusta should focus on finding common ground before tackling some of the more controversial measures.
Jeff Weinstein, director of the Maine Gun Owners Association, said a ban on assault weapons would be a slippery slope leading to a ban on all semi-automatic rifles, something that Americans wouldn’t support.
“‘Assault’ rifles are semi-automatics virtually identical to many rifles used for hunting, competitive shooting, and personal defense, with the only difference being cosmetic,” Weinstein said in a news release Wednesday. “This leads to the question, how long will it take for the federal government to ‘expand’ their definition of ‘assault’ rifle to include those firearms as well?”
Weinstein said he supports the idea of expanding background checks, but he has reservations about how the information would be used.
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.'”
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Police Chief Michael Sauschuk held a news conference this week to support gun control measures, many of which are now in the president’s proposal.
“Since the shooting in Newtown just over a month ago, mayors across the country and more than a million grass-roots supporters have joined forces to press Washington for a plan to end gun violence,” Brennan said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “Today’s announcement shows that our voices have been heard. The simple fact of the matter is that reasonable laws and regulations can make a difference in our effort to reduce gun violence.”
Opinions are split among Americans.
In a Pew Research Center poll, 85 percent of respondents said they support background checks at gun shows and for private gun sales, but just 54 percent support a ban on high-capacity clips and 55 percent support a ban on assault weapons.
Those attitudes are mirrored by Maine residents. A poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram last week showed that while 55 percent of Mainers said they had a gun on their property, 79 percent support some restrictions, including 61 percent who support a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips.
Only 51 percent of Mainers polled supported banning semi-automatic guns.
Craig Daigle, who owns C&R Trading Post in Brunswick, said he doesn’t favor additional restrictions. “There are plenty of laws already on the books that need to be enforced,” he said.
Gun sales have increased since the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Dealers in Maine said the types of guns and high-capacity magazines that could be banned have mostly sold out in recent weeks, showing that consumers are keeping a close eye on possible restrictions.
Jeff Ward of the York County Trading Co. in Sanford said most of the president’s executive orders seem reasonable, but he doesn’t think further restrictions on gun sales would make a difference.
“There is no real downside to more background checks, I suppose, but the rest is politicians feeling like they need to do something because there is a problem,” Ward said.
Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said some of the measures are easy to support, like more background checks and better sharing of information.
He said it is tougher to build support for gun restrictions, and he’s not convinced that they work. Bad people will still get guns, he said.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said every possible solution comes with a “but.”
“It’s good to gather information and see what makes sense to do, but there is no easy answer,” he said.
Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, Senate chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he supports the president’s proposal but suspects there will be a fight.
He said many of the proposals outlined by Obama could be debated by the Legislature in this session.
“We don’t want a knee-jerk reaction on either side,” he said. “There will be time to debate these things.”
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: