Gun-control advocates in Maine hope that the public outcry about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last month will lead to new state laws that reduce the risk of gun violence.
Lawmakers have submitted dozens of bills for consideration. While the debate on those bills has yet to begin, it’s already clear that the Maine Legislature won’t be following its counterpart in New York, which last week rushed through a sweeping package of gun-control measures.
Maine lawmakers will take a much more cautious approach — and they intend to take their time.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee won’t take up the bills until spring, to establish some emotional distance from the school massacre just before Christmas in which 20 children and six educators were killed by a lone gunman, said the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.
He said he also wants to wait and see how Congress responds to President Barack Obama’s proposed gun control initiatives, which include banning military-style assault rifles and high capacity magazines. Moreover, the delay will allow his committee and legislative staff to organize public hearings around common issues and gather background information, he said.
“These bills won’t be heard for quite while. They are going to have to simmer,” he said.
Friday was the deadline for submitting bills for the legislative session. In all, 1,775 bills have been submitted this session, but the list won’t be made public until Jan. 28, after they are processed by the Revisor’s Office. Gerzosky said at least 40 of the bills are aimed at stemming gun violence.
Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence on Tuesday will announce its legislative agenda and identify organizations and lawmakers who have joined its coalition.
Among the group’s goals is curbing the flow of guns into the hands of those who have a history of violence and criminal intent, said Thomas Franklin, the group’s president.
He said the group takes pride in the state’s long history of responsible gun ownership and hopes to engage lawmakers in a “constructive dialogue” about how to promote safety and protect citizens from violence.
“This is a debate about our future and the safety of our families,” Franklin said in a written statement.
One lawmaker who has joined that coalition, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who co-chairs the criminal justice committee, said there will be push for a comprehensive approach that includes improving gun safety education, upgrading school security, banning high capacity magazines, requiring background checks for gun shows and private sales, and restricting access to firearms for the mentally ill.
Dion said he expects that some of the best ideas will be consolidated into a single bill intended to win broad support by including initiatives that won’t incur the wrath of gun-rights advocates.
For example, Dion said, current law prohibits people who have been committed involuntarily to a mental institution from possessing a firearm.
However, primarily because of funding shortages, state police and the court system have not been able to compile information on those who have been committed involuntarily and send it to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Dion said many lawmakers want to fix this flaw, which could require creating a system of electronic records rather than paper records.
Dion said he has submitted legislation that would allow police to search and seize guns at the home of someone who has been committed involuntarily to a mental institution. He said the guns would be returned to the person once doctors certify the person is mentally healthy.
He said the bill also would change the standard for when someone could be committed involuntarily to a mental institution. The person now must pose an “imminent” threat to harm himself or others. Dion said the bill would change the standard of threat from “imminent” to a “reasonable likelihood.”
Gerzofsky said he has submitted a bill that would overturn a law the Legislature passed two years ago, over the objections of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, that made it illegal for employers to ban concealed-weapons permit holders from keeping guns hidden in locked vehicles in parking lots at their workplaces.
He has also submitted a bill that would restrict the size of magazines, limiting the number of bullets in a magazine to between seven and 10.
He said he doesn’t expect the gun control debate to become a partisan issue in Maine because many lawmakers in both parties are strong supporters of gun rights.
“I’ve got a lot of gun-toting Democrats,” he said.
That list includes Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, who shot a moose last October near Jackman. Haskell is expected to play an influential role in the gun control debate because she’s a hunter who lives in liberal Portland.
Haskell said she has agreed to co-sponsor a bill that would allow police to ask a person carrying a weapon in public to ask whether the weapon is loaded.
That issue came up on Dec. 24, after Portland police received 65 panicky phone calls from people who saw a man openly carrying an AR-15 military-style rifle while walking around Back Cove. Police questioned him, but the man had no legal obligation to identify himself or tell police whether the gun was loaded.
On the other side of the debate, gun control advocates have also submitted bills.
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, for example, a retired state trooper endorsed by the National Rifle Association, has submitted a bill that would allow school districts to send personnel to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy for firearms training.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he supports the Legislature’s slower, more comprehensive approach to the volatile issues of gun rights and gun control.
“It allows cooler heads to prevail and emotions to subside a bit,” he said.
Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the ranking Republican on the criminal justice committee, said the Legislature has rejected many of the same proposals in the past. This year he thinks lawmakers will be more open to considering them.
“I think Sandy Hook was a watershed event,” he said. “I think there will be a change in culture and climate among everybody. This is too tragic not to respond.”
Maine has fewer gun fatalities per capita than most states, although it has the second-highest gun fatality rate in New England, behind only Vermont.
Between 1999 and 2010, the most recent year for which data was available, there was an average of 106 gun fatalities annually in Maine, and most were self-inflicted, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control.
While Maine is not seeing an epidemic in gun violence, it’s important that lawmakers take steps to lower the possibility that a mass shooting like the Sandy Hook massacre could occur in Maine, Dion said.
Police in Connecticut have yet to file a full report on the Sandy Hook shootings that could give an indication of the motive of the 20-year-old killer, Adam Lanza. There has been widespread speculation in the media that he suffered from mental illness.
Lanza killed himself after his rampage, in which he used a Bushmaster AR-15, a civilian version of a military rifle, to kill his victims, including the gun’s owner, his mother. He also used high-capacity magazines.
While public opinion around the country has shifted in favor of more gun restrictions, the gun rights lobby in Maine is so well organized and energized that its supporters still could dominate public hearings in the State House, said Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic, a board member of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence and a former legislator.
“My fear is that the gun-rights crowd has historically outgunned the sensible gun policy folks,” he said, “and I don’t think it’s inconceivable that it could happen again. Although the tide of public opinion has shifted, for some elected officials, it only shifts in the hearing room.”