AUGUSTA — Advocates and opponents of tighter gun regulations descended on the State House on Friday as lawmakers held public hearings on several bills that would tighten or loosen Maine’s gun laws.

Bills before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee would require home gun safes, trigger locks and background checks for private gun sales or exchanges. Another bill would ban high-capacity magazines. One measure would permit the use of deadly force, partly by eliminating a requirement to retreat.

Dozens of activists, from groups like Gun Owners of Maine, many wearing blaze orange T-shirts with logos reading, “guns save lives,” packed the committee hearing room as well as four overflow rooms. Supporters of increased gun restrictions, including members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, were also in attendance in their signature red T-shirts.

Moms Demand Action member Sue Repco speaks at news conference in favor of gun control measures at the State House in Augusta on Friday. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“In Maine, gun safety is a way of life, we start hunting at a young age and it has been drilled into me that guns are not a toy,” said Keith Atterberry, a 13-year-old Burnham resident who spoke in opposition to the bills requiring guns to be locked in a safe.

Atterberry told committee members he often watches his younger siblings and worries about a home invasion by intruders more than he worries about a mass shooting at his school. He urged lawmakers to “please remember that gun rights are civil rights.”

But supporters of legislation to tighten gun laws pointed to studies showing that children commonly fall victim to accidental shooting because of an unsecured weapon in a home. They said often a child finds the gun or is playing with the gun and shoots themselves, a sibling or a friend.

A number of those testifying in support of the legislation also mentioned the accidental shooting death of a 5-year-old in Scarborough in 2017.

In that case, a girl found a loaded .45 caliber handgun in her father’s backpack and accidentally shot herself.

But opponents said enforcing a law requiring guns to be put under lock and key in a home or to ensure they were stored with trigger locks installed would be difficult. They also argued that locking guns up too securely would defeat the purpose of handy access in a case of self-defense.

Peter Michaud, the chief legal counsel for the Maine Medical Association, which testified largely in favor of the bills, reminded lawmakers that all of the civil rights enshrined in the U.S. and state constitutions came with reasonable restrictions.

“It’s important to remember that the Constitution doesn’t have a hierarchy of rights, it doesn’t say this right is more important than that right or that this amendment is more important than that amendment,” Michaud said. “Nor does it state that any right is totally without limit.”

Michaud gave the example that his right to speak at the committee whenever he wanted to was limited by the rules of the committee and his right to keep and possess a firearm was limited in that he couldn’t bring one to the State House, under state law.

“I’ve heard guns don’t kill people, people kill people and yet I’ve seen T-shirts today that say guns save lives,” Michaud said. He urged the committee to take reasonable steps and to consider the broader problem of gun violence in the U.S.

Others countered that Maine’s overall murder rate was down significantly in the last 20 years and that the state remains one of the safest in the country to live or work, suggesting that many of the proposed bills were simply “feel good” measures.

They repeated the argument that only law-abiding Mainers would be affected by stricter restrictions on guns because criminals wouldn’t follow the law, anyway.

Lawmakers also heard testimony on a bill that would create a so-called “stand your ground” provision in state law. Current law requires a person to retreat from a confrontation with another individual during an attempted crime if the opportunity presents itself.

The measure would permit people to use deadly force to defend themselves, their property or a third person without the requirement that a person retreat if that opportunity presents itself.

The committee began taking testimony on the bills at 9 a.m., following an 8 a.m. pro-gun rally featuring Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and former state Sen. Eric Brakey.

“In Maine, gun safety is a way of life, we start hunting at a young age and it has been drilled into me that guns are not a toy,” said 13-year-old Keith Atterberry of Burnham, who spoke in opposition to bills requiring guns to be locked in a safe. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Isgro is also the vice chairman of the Maine Republican Party.

Testimony continued well into the afternoon as opponents to the bills and supporters took to the microphone to state their positions.

The bills join several other gun-related measures wending their way through the Legislature, including a controversial “red flag” bill that would allow guns to be temporarily confiscated by a court if an individual were deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Maine voters rejected a ballot measure in 2016 that would have required universal background checks for all gun sales.

And in 2015, the Maine Legislature passed a law allowing Mainers over the age of 21 to carry a concealed handgun without a permit, provided they were not otherwise prohibited from possessing a firearm.

All of the bills before the committee Friday will be the subject of additional consideration in the Legislature in the weeks ahead, including work sessions before the committee, likely starting next week.

 

 

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