Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a White House conference convened in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to discuss strategies that could reduce the frequency of gun violence. I felt humbled as I crossed through the Secret Service checkpoint protecting the gate of the White House complex.

The participants, a select group of mayors, attorneys general, county executives, state legislators, members of Congress and the governor of Connecticut, stood single file waiting our turn to be processed onto the grounds of the White House complex. We hailed from 48 states, bound by a common sense that too many had died and would die if we chose not to lead. We had spent the morning in private discussions trying to come to terms with the consequences of gun violence in each part of our country we call home.

We were welcomed by President Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, who framed the challenge for gun violence prevention policy as an opportunity for state executive action. The task of enhancing community public safety would likely only be accomplished outside a divided Washington.

Often, critics of universal background checks define such proposals as straw men for expansive gun control, ill-advised pathways to the horrible hypotheticals of gun registries and weapon confiscation.

Their fears may have been dampened if they had witnessed Vice President Joseph Biden’s conversation with attendees urging us to recognize that “there is a Second Amendment. It is real. It exists, and it must be upheld.” The vice president’s charge was genuine; it did not arise from a prepared text but was spoken with the confidence and insight gained from dealing with this issue for over 30 years.

We were encouraged to hear the vice president remind us that our efforts to advance community safety should not be done so as to “undermine” the constitutional purpose of the Second Amendment. As one Maine legislator, I welcome this sentiment as an assertion from the federal executive branch with which I could not agree more.


But our allegiance to the principles of the Second Amendment is not a permission slip to allow us to sidestep the serious issues involving firearms in our state. As a career law enforcement officer, I was trained to respect the lethality of that tool and the hard reality that gun violence rears its head as the consequence of unthinking and often irrational human decisions.

In that sense, I am hard pressed to believe that the values of safe use and personal accountability that underscore responsible gun ownership are incompatible with our expectations surrounding access to firearms. This isn’t about gun control. It’s about promoting shared values that defend our right to be safe from the often tragic and irrevocable outcomes that spring from the use of firearms by people who, by any measure of common sense, should never had been provided access to firearms in the first place.

Under the current background check system, more than 5,000 felons, domestic abusers and other dangerous people have been blocked from buying guns in Maine since 1998. But the current law’s blindness to private sales makes it easy for those same criminals to anonymously buy guns from private citizens – strangers who met online, or through classified ads – with no background check, no questions asked.

If the adage is true — guns don’t kill but people do — then every sale should be held to the same legal scrutiny as that placed upon law-abiding citizens when they purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer. After all, a sale is a sale is a sale.

I left the White House grounds convinced and encouraged that the public safety expectations of Maine’s people are not much different from those expressed by citizens from Arkansas, West Virginia or Indiana: that we can, if we do the work, provide for the legal oversight of all commercial gun sales.

I also left admiring a vice president who, in the twilight of his political career, could still set the bar of what was politically possible. He’s a seasoned hand, setting us a course to realize what should be in the best interest of all of us.

Mark Dion is a Democratic state representative from Portland and a candidate for the Maine Senate District 28 seat in the June 14 primary. A former Cumberland County sheriff, he served as House chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

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