During my time as the U.S. Attorney for Maine, particularly during the Bush administration, prosecuting gun crimes — including gun trafficking — was a high priority. A loophole in Maine law allows dangerous people to buy guns from unlicensed sellers without a background check.

Since 1998, background checks performed by licensed Maine dealers have kept guns out of the hands of more than 5,500 people who are prohibited by law from them. And while it is true that background checks occur when ordering a gun from a licensed internet dealer as well as at brick-and-mortar gun shops, there are no background checks required for the thousands of unlicensed online and classified sales that occur in Maine each year.

As a result, people who can’t buy a gun from a licensed dealer because they are felons, domestic abusers, have been dishonorably discharged from the Armed Services, who have been admitted to a mental institution or are otherwise prohibited from having a gun can buy one from an unlicensed seller through a private sale.

Question 3 will make it harder for them to have that access.

Selling a gun to a stranger or even a friend without a background check is like flying blind. A seller has no way of knowing whether the buyer is prohibited from having a gun or what that gun is going to be used for.

No Mainer wants his or her gun to end up in the hands of a criminal or at a crime scene. I personally know a former Maine law enforcement officer who sold his gun through a classified ad to someone he didn’t know only to be contacted months later by an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in Massachusetts who had found his gun at a crime scene. The person who had purchased his gun was buying guns and supplying them to criminals.

Background checks help prevent this from happening.

Between 2006 and 2014, 1,510 guns originally obtained in Maine turned up at out-of-state crime scenes.

In 2015, there were no signs that this practice was letting up. According to ATF, the number of trafficked guns originally obtained in Maine that were later found at crimes across state lines reached 277. That puts Maine near the top of the list of the most prolific trafficking states in the country when adjusted for population.

But the problem does not rest solely with guns that are trafficked out of state. There are also unlicensed sales to Mainers who have are prohibited from having guns and are found at crime scenes here.

David Trahan wrote an op-ed in this paper questioning statistics that are easily available from public information (“‘Yes on 3’ wrong on gun facts”). He has his facts wrong, and he parses the information in a way to try to diminish the impact Maine guns have in the criminal world.

When comparing states with expanded background checks for handguns to those without, the results are clear: There is a 48 percent reduction in the numbers of guns trafficked illegally across state lines, a 48 percent reduction in the numbers of police officers killed with a handgun, and a 46 percent reduction in the numbers of women killed who with a gun by an intimate partner.

A 33-year career as a federal prosecutor has convinced me that background checks make us safer and has led me to join the Maine Chiefs of Police Association in supporting a yes vote on Question 3.

Let Maine be known for exporting blueberries and lobster — not guns.

Paula D. Silsby was U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine from 2001-2010.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.