ANALYSIS

Officers turned Maine lawmakers want gun control debate to be about protecting kids, not politics

A group of Rockland residents participate in a nationwide vigil against gun violence on Dec. 16, 2012.
A group of Rockland residents participate in a nationwide vigil against gun violence on Dec. 16, 2012. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 11, 2013, at 5:50 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 12, 2013, at 7:03 a.m.
There were 1,020 suicides and homicides between 2005 and 2009, and 52 percent of them were committed with a firearm. Guns accounted for, on average, approximately 106 deaths per year over the time period. For every gun-related homicide in Maine, there were seven suicides. The graphic shows a proportionate number of all suicide and homicide deaths from 2005 to 2009. Those designated by the cross-hairs died by gun. The figures contained within the dashed line represent homicides only. All others committed suicide. SOURCE: Maine Center for Disease Control and Maine Department of Public Safety.
There were 1,020 suicides and homicides between 2005 and 2009, and 52 percent of them were committed with a firearm. Guns accounted for, on average, approximately 106 deaths per year over the time period. For every gun-related homicide in Maine, there were seven suicides. The graphic shows a proportionate number of all suicide and homicide deaths from 2005 to 2009. Those designated by the cross-hairs died by gun. The figures contained within the dashed line represent homicides only. All others committed suicide. SOURCE: Maine Center for Disease Control and Maine Department of Public Safety.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In the aftermath of the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., lobbyists and lawmakers expect between 40 and 60 bills related to gun violence to be submitted to the Maine Legislature before the Jan. 18 deadline.

Most of the proposed legislation will go to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Two new members of that panel, Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, and Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the House chairman, are former police officers. They bring decades of firsthand experience dealing with gun violence in Maine to the discussion.

That experience leaves them with no desire to engage in another political debate about firearms. Both say they believe any legislative response in Maine to the Newtown massacre must get beyond ideological stalemates over rights and protections.

Marks, who retired after 25 years as a Maine state trooper, hopes to correct some of the misinformation that both sides of the gun-control debate use in their political arguments.

As a leader of the committee, Dion, a former Portland police officer and Cumberland County sheriff, wants to create an environment that pushes gun-control advocates and firearms-rights defenders past their differences to answer one key question: How can Maine make sure its children are safe?

“This is a community question,” Dion said. “It’s not constituencies or advocates. I have friends who see no reason for the existence of firearms and others who are lifetime members of the National Rifle Association. If I can get those people to start sharing, then we will be on the right track.”

Doing so won’t be easy, according to former secretary of state and longtime legislator Bill Diamond, a Democrat who served as Senate chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee and left the Senate because of term limits in 2012. Although some gun-control supporters and firearms-rights defenders have expressed an interest in finding common ground this year, they will have to overcome a history of deep distrust, Diamond said.

“Each side believes that if the other side had their way, they would go to extreme measures,” Diamond said. “The minute either side tries to sneak in something extra is when the talks will break down. I’ve seen that happen time and time again.”

Hints of that distrust are beginning to emerge.

While advocating for a reasoned dialogue in Maine about firearms and public safety, David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, criticized President Barack Obama for “playing on emotions” by suggesting that he would use executive powers to enact some gun ownership restrictions.

“There are a lot of people concerned that this situation will drive legislation too soon,” Trahan said of the Newtown shooting.

Conversely, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, while acknowledging that the discussion must extend to mental health care and violence in general, believes that Maine needs to enact “reasonable control of firearms,” which includes bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“It’s very important not to let the conversation lead to inaction because people feel there are so many larger, connected issues,” Brennan said.

To make firearms part of the conversation rather than the centerpiece, Dion wants to reframe the debate to a broader exploration of the role firearms play in determining how Maine defines public safety.

“I appreciate the emotionality of the question, but we have to be driven by the data,” he said.

The 2011 Maine Crime Victimization Report, prepared by the Muskie School of Public Service, portrays Maine as a comparatively safe state, in which roughly half of all households have at least one firearm. A public survey component of the study reveals that 93.8 percent of respondents feel safe within their communities and that 87.9 percent are never or almost never fearful about being the victim of a violent crime.

Maine’s rate of firearms use in the commission of a crime is about 10 percent, which is nearly three times lower than the national average of 28.8 percent. The state had the third-lowest rate of firearm use in violent crimes in the country in 2009. That year 120 violent firearms crimes were committed in Maine, while Vermont saw 98, and North Dakota saw 39.

Marks, the former state trooper, never fired on anyone or was shot at during his 25 years on the force. He shares an anecdote from that experience to illustrate his position that limiting private gun ownership or banning certain types of weapons won’t directly lead to less crime. While questioning a man accused of committing 77 burglaries, Marks discovered that “his worst fear was that Grampy would be home with a shotgun and would blow his head off. He was more afraid of a homeowner with a gun than of getting caught.”

Gun ownership is part of Maine’s culture, Marks said, so the focus of any legislative action should be on safety, education and information-sharing.

Steve Edmondson, domestic violence investigator for Sagadahoc County, agrees that Maine must promote responsible gun ownership but for a different reason.

“The mere presence of a firearm naturally elevates the danger and adds to the potential volatility when things get heated,” he said.

While exact data on the use of firearms as threats in Maine domestic violence cases are difficult to pinpoint, a 2003 U.S. attorney’s office study “demonstrates that the threatened use of a firearm against an intimate partner or family member far exceeds the number of reported violent crimes with a firearm in Maine.”

Access to firearms also creates concerns about suicide. The Maine Centers for Disease Control reports that between 2005 and 2009, there were 902 suicides in Maine, seven times the number of homicides. Fifty-three percent of those suicides involved a firearm.

Edmondson argues that better information-sharing and coordination between state agencies and between the state and federal government would be a step toward reducing gun violence involving people in crisis.

On that point, everyone interviewed for this report agrees. Maine is one of 13 states that does not provide the names of people involuntarily committed to hospitals for suicidal or homicidal behavior to the the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which flags people prohibited by federal law from buying firearms. Local police provide that information to the state’s judicial system, but a lack of funding has prevented the state from passing that information on to the federal database.

Marks supports legislation to fund the process and he plans to submit legislation that would create a central database from which police throughout the state could gain access to information about gun-permit holders at any time. That type of legislation, which specifically addresses the state’s role in protecting public safety, represents the most likely place to break the gun-control impasse that has in the past thwarted efforts to answer questions similar to those posed by Dion.

But even if longtime gun-control adversaries agree that better data-sharing would enhance public safety, the question of how to pay for it looms large. Gov. Paul LePage late last month ordered $35.5 million in new state spending cuts to balance the current budget. Further financial trimming to deal with an approximately $100 million Medicaid shortfall in this year’s budget, and gloomy revenue projections for the biennial budget that begins July 1, mean that even if longtime combatants in Maine’s gun-control conflict manage to agree on some proposals, state government might have a harder time finding ways to fund them.

Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.

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