The Legal Landscape: Gun-control bills in Maine face tough challenges

Posted Nov. 18, 2009, at 7:55 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Earlier this year, freshman legislator Rep. Anna Blodgett waded into a perpetual brawl with what she thought was a common-sense bill to make it harder for criminals to buy guns.

What she received was a hard lesson on the politics of gun control in Maine.

Blodgett, an Augusta Democrat, arranged for the father of one of the students killed at Columbine High School in Colorado to testify in support of her bill to require private sellers at gun shows to conduct background checks of potential buyers.

But by the time the committee voted, Blodgett had even lost the support of several lawmakers who had signed on as co-sponsors. The unanimous vote against her bill dismayed Blodgett.

“After the vote, I had said that I would never do that again, but I will,” Blodgett said recently.

The powerful gun owners’ lobby figures heavily in Blodgett’s theory for why her bill failed. But those who have been fighting for years on both sides of the debate over guns point out that Maine — with its low rate of violent crime, rich outdoor heritage and “live and let live” ethos — is not the easiest place to get new gun laws enacted.

“Maine is a state that has more guns than people, and it is a very safe state,” said John Hohenwarter, the National Rifle Association’s legislative liaison for Maine and other northeastern states. “That is one of the reasons why you don’t really see a lot of the bills in Maine that you see in other states.”

Maine has dozens of laws on the books regulating the use, abuse, ownership and transportation of firearms. But the state also has a long and oftentimes controversial history of protecting the interests of gun owners.

Before November 1987, Maine’s constitution stated that citizens had the right “to keep and bear arms for the common defense.” But during a referendum that year, Mainers voted to drop the phrase “for the common defense” and amended the constitution to read that citizens’ right to keep and bear arms “shall never be questioned.”

A 20-year-old state law also prohibits municipalities from enacting tougher gun laws than the state, with the exception of regulating the discharge of firearms within municipal boundaries. One exception is colleges and universities, which can enact their own restrictions on guns on campus.

Calculating the number of guns in Maine is impossible, although it is clear from surveys that Maine has relatively high rates of gun ownership. Maine also has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation.

But advocates for tougher gun laws say those statistics tell only part of the story.

Once again this year, Maine received a low score — a 12 out of a possible 100 — from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation’s leading advocates for gun law reform.

A major reason for the low score is Maine policymakers’ resistance to closing the “gun show loophole,” which critics contend feeds the black market and enables convicted felons to purchase firearms from private sellers without background checks. All dealers must perform background checks on potential buyers, whether selling at their store or at a gun show.

“We certainly don’t want to disrupt that hunting culture in Maine,” said Chad Ramsey, senior associate director at the Brady Campaign. “But it only takes a few minutes to get a background check conducted, and it could save lives.”

Maine also lost points in the Brady Campaign’s annual scorecard for, among other things: not restricting the number of handguns that can be sold at one time or the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines, for allowing the purchase of “military-style” semiautomatic assault weapons and for prohibiting local gun regulations.

Former state Sen. Ethan Strimling tried, without success, to change many of the laws criticized by the Brady Campaign.

Strimling, a Portland Democrat who co-chaired the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, sponsored or co-sponsored bills to ban military-style assault weapons, to require waiting periods on handgun purchases and to close the gun show “loophole.” During the 2005 debate over his assault weapons bill, Strimling received death threats serious enough to warrant an investigation by law enforcement.

Strimling said he realizes the people behind such threats represent the radical extreme rather than your average gun owner or NRA member.

While he acknowledged tradition plays a role in Mainers’ attitudes toward guns, Strimling believes the majority would support banning military-style assault weapons and requiring background checks for private sales. In fact, 88 percent of participants in a recent statewide poll favored background checks for all handgun purchases at gun shows.

So the failure of such measures in the Legislature has more to do, he said, with the influence of the NRA and special interests groups than the will of the people.

“It is very difficult to get substantial gun legislation through the Legislature,” he said.

George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, had a different take, attributing Mainers’ comfort with guns to the state’s culture and the respect for firearm safety observed by the vast majority of gun owners.

Smith also pointed out that SAM worked with Strimling and others to pass a law notifying Mainers shielded by a protection from abuse order when their abuser attempts to purchase a gun.

“The Maine Legislature has been strongly supportive” of gun owners, Smith said recently. “I can’t think of any [successful] bills that I have had serious problems with since I started about 15 years ago.”

But while critics would agree that most Maine gun owners are safe gun owners, they argue that Maine’s firearms laws have severe ramifications beyond the state’s border.

The Brady Campaign, the national organization Stop Handgun Violence and Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence all contend that Maine’s lax regulations help feed the illegal gun trade — and, therefore, violent crime — in Massachusetts and other states.

In 2006, Massachusetts-based Stop Handgun Violence tried to shame Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont into passing tougher gun regulations with a massive billboard erected near Fenway Park that accused the states of helping put guns in criminals’ hands.

Identifying the source of illegal guns is no easy task. But at least one study suggests that Maine is a top source for illegal guns recovered in Massachusetts.

In 2008, Maine supplied 11 percent of the nearly 900 recovered guns in Massachusetts that were traced back to a specific state outside of Massachusetts, according to the report from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That was more than any other state.

Tom Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, acknowledged that many Mainers are comfortable with guns because of the state’s hunting culture and the prevalence of firearms in many homes.

“There is also a certain libertarian streak in Maine where people think, ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’” Franklin said. And then there is the perception among some Mainers that violence among warring drug dealers on the streets of Boston is Boston’s problem, not Maine’s.

“And it certainly is, but we shouldn’t be supplying guns to them,” Franklin said.

But Franklin echoes Strimling’s argument that, given the chance to vote on the issue themselves, most Mainers would support closing the gun show loophole in order to change the state’s reputation as a source of illegal firearms.

The NRA’s Hohenwarter doesn’t agree with the phrase “gun show loophole,” much less that gun sale laws need amending.

Hohenwarter pointed out that prisoners in state correctional facilities reported obtaining firearms from gun shows just 0.7 percent of the time, according to the last U.S. Department of Justice survey of the topic, conducted in 1997. Roughly 80 percent said they obtained their guns from friends and family or from the black market.

The Brady Campaign and Franklin’s group contend that lack of oversight of guns purchased privately — whether at gun shows or through published ads, such as those in Uncle Henry’s — inevitably feeds the black market.

But Hohenwarter responded that, under federal law, anyone who sells guns on more than an occasional basis would be considered a firearms dealer required to obtain a license and conduct background checks.

“There is no gun show loophole,” Hohenwarter said.

Opponents obviously disagree. And Blodgett, the Augusta lawmaker whose gun show sales bill failed in committee earlier this year, said she plans to introduce it again during the 2011 legislative session. Blodgett said the key will be getting the support of at least one committee member, giving the bill a chance to be debated on the House floor.

“I will get it to the floor next time. I’m positive,” she said. “I think that will make a big difference.”

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