AUGUSTA — Opponents and proponents of gun control law changes have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years trying to influence lawmakers and voters, but despite those efforts, substantial changes in Maine’s gun laws have been few and far between. Lawmakers are now again contemplating how Maine should respond as debate over school security and gun safety reignites in the wake of the Florida school shooting that left 17 dead in February.

Among the major players in the debate is the National Rifle Association. Its political action committees have spent nearly $1.2 million in Maine since 2014 trying to influence gun control legislation by donating to candidates and party PACs or funding campaigns to defeat gun control measures. Most of that money – $1.1 million – was spent to defeat a 2016 ballot question to require background checks for private gun sales. The organization also donated $4,350 to candidates and $17,386 to Republican-controlled PACs.

Yet campaign contributions aren’t the NRA’s only weapons. The organization funds most of the gun safety and training courses offered by local Maine gun clubs, with many of those clubs requiring an NRA membership in order to join or take gun courses.

The NRA also runs a highly effective communications network, using email alerts and other methods to mobilize supporters and pack them into legislative hearings on gun bills. When those legislators run for office, the NRA rates their performance on gun rights issues and grades them on a scorecard to help its members make Election Day decisions.

A FORMIDABLE BARRIER TO CHANGE

The NRA’s efforts, in a rural state with a long tradition of gun ownership, reinforced by groups like the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Gun Owners of Maine, creates a formidable barrier to any effort to enact meaningful gun controls.

Lawmakers generally discount the influence of NRA scoring on their decision making, but there’s no denying that the position of gun owners’ organizations has prevailed in the halls of the State House. Most of the significant battles over gun control in the past decade or so have resulted in victories for gun rights groups.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has been in the vanguard of the movement to protect gun rights. In a 2013 op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, he declared, “I will never sign anti-gun legislation that erodes the rights of Maine citizens, drives your business away or infringes on the U.S. Constitution or the State of Maine Constitution.”

Citizens of Maine have a right to bear arms that is spelled out not just in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but also in the Maine Constitution. In 1987, the Maine Constitution was amended to clarify that right with language that reads, “Every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.”

The 1987 amendment, approved by the Legislature and ratified by voters, struck from the state’s constitution the words “for the common defense,” clarifying the right as an individual one.

But the political divisions on gun safety and related issues, such as school security, aren’t always clean ones in Maine, where lawmakers are often more interested in what their constituents say than in how their party bosses tell them to vote or how the NRA will grade them. That was evident in voting last month on whether to allow a bill to be introduced after the legislative deadline that would have banned high-capacity ammunition magazines in Maine.

SPENDING RELATIVELY SMALL SUMS IN MAINE

Sen. Amy Volk, a Republican who represents suburban Scarborough, sided with Democrats and voted for the bill to move forward. But Sen. Troy Jackson, a Democrat who represents the rural northern Maine town of Allagash, sided with Republicans and voted against admitting the bill for consideration.

“I didn’t think the high-capacity magazine bill was actually going to make a difference in stopping shooters, because people who are unhealthy like that will use another type of weapon,” Jackson explained. “I don’t see a use for them, but I don’t think that’s going to make our children safe and I did not feel that would get across the governor’s desk.”

Volk said she wanted the Legislature to at least have a debate about the bill and consider whether it made sense to ban or to establish certain restrictions or conditions for having access to high-capacity magazines.

“So I do have questions about what the purpose of your average person having those (magazines) is,” she said.

Both Jackson and Volk said they were unconcerned with the NRA and its rankings.

The NRA’s Political Victory Fund PAC grades lawmakers and candidates for office with a letter grade from A+ to F based on both their response to an NRA questionnaire and their voting record on firearms, if they have one. The grades are only issued in general election years, but the PAC also endorses candidates and promotes those endorsements with video advertising and news releases to media.

The grades are made available to NRA members online as well but are not published for the public.

It was unclear what grades Volk and Jackson were issued in 2016, and the field representative for the NRA Political Victory Fund for Maine did not respond to a message.

While opponents of the NRA point to its influence, the organization in reality spends relatively small sums of money in Maine.

Since 2014 the NRA and its affiliated PAC have spent about $1.2 million, but most of that money – $1.1 million – went toward the 2016 campaign to defeat a statewide ballot question that would have required criminal background checks for private gun sales in Maine, according to online records available with the Maine Ethics Commission.

BOLSTERED BY SPORTSMAN’S ALLIANCE

By comparison, supporters of the ballot measure, which was rejected by 52 percent of the vote, spent more than $5.1 million, provided mostly by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control organization, which filtered the funds to Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership and its allies.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he opposed the background check ballot measure largely because it would have required background checks on any transfer of a firearm from one person to another. Trahan said that provision struck at Maine’s very deep-rooted culture and tradition of hunting where friends and relatives often loan firearms to one another or even swap them back and forth between generations.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which has 8,000 to 10,000 members, spent about $150,000 working to defeat the ballot question, said Trahan, a Republican former state legislator. Trahan said SAM’s success depended largely on volunteer manpower, and its partnerships with 51 different fish and game clubs and about six other organizations that focus on outdoor sporting in Maine gave them the clout to defeat the ballot measure.

“I can think of no campaign in Maine where they had more advantage in resources, money and consulting than that campaign,” he said. The NRA also entered the fray, but the national group didn’t work in concert with SAM, Trahan said.

“We didn’t work together. I did my thing and they did theirs. And they wouldn’t share with me what they were doing,” he said.

‘THE FIREARMS SAFETY SIDE OF THINGS’

SAM issues its own scorecards for state lawmakers, and Trahan said its ratings often differ because SAM’s mission is broader than gun rights alone. That means lawmakers can gain favor from the organization for supporting land conservation and laws that protect or improve access to land for hunting and fishing, among other issues.

As to the NRA’s role, Trahan said the non-political arm of the organization has a significant presence in Maine, as it provides financial support for firearms safety training and also issues grants for gun range construction or improvements.

“For all the politics of it, the NRA does a tremendous amount on the firearms safety side of things,” Trahan said, including helping SAM offer firearms safety training and training for firearms instructors. He said without the NRA’s support, SAM would not be able to offer the 20 or so classes it does each year, including training for 4-H rifle and archery instructors.

While the influence of the NRA or other groups that support gun rights may be difficult to measure, the trajectory of gun rights policy in Maine is crystal clear. In the wake of mass shooting after mass shooting, since 2010 the Maine Legislature has also only moved to loosen gun laws while taking greater steps to protect gun owners’ rights.

In 2011, it passed laws allowing concealed handgun permit holders to stow guns in their vehicles on public property, including parking lots at the Capitol complex in Augusta, prisons and courthouses and at their place of employment.

In 2013, it sealed previously public concealed handgun permit records.

In 2015, it passed a law eliminating the concealed handgun permit requirement altogether, making Maine one of only 13 states that allow for unregulated concealed handguns.

And in 2017, it prohibited the state from creating any type of firearm registry and eliminated requirements that federal firearms dealers provide police copies of sales records upon demand. The law now allows law enforcement to access those records only in the case of an ongoing criminal investigation.

TEMPORARY CONFISCATION BILL PROPOSED

This year the Legislature is considering a bill that would allow guns to be brought onto public school grounds, provided they are unloaded, locked in a rack or a case inside a vehicle and the owner of the firearm remains inside the vehicle with the weapon.

Another bill, backed by Republicans and SAM, could lead to $20 million in funding for school security upgrades.

And one bill that could gain steam is offered by Sen. Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat and former Cumberland County sheriff. Dion’s bill creates a legal process that would allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate guns from an individual who has been deemed a danger to himself or others by a court order.

The measure is similar to the Maine law that allows police to temporarily confiscate guns from those under court-issued domestic violence protection-from-abuse orders.

“I think Dion’s bill is the best shot at doing something that’s needed,” Jackson said, adding that he fears it’s only a matter of time before a shooting happens in a Maine school, despite the best efforts of parents and teachers.

“I’m very concerned about that,” he said, “but I think we’ve got to do something besides just banning, because we are still going to have people that will use other means.”

Volk said ultimately she believes the solution rests in addressing mental health issues. “A lot of people are talking about gun control, but the bigger conversation that needs to happen is about mental health and doing whatever we can to identify, particularly children and families that are struggling with mental health and sew up those holes,” she said.

 

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