BREWER, Maine — President Barack Obama ’s plan to require criminal background checks for private gun sales and a ban on assault weapons drew strong reactions from Maine gun sellers, residents and a gun control activist Wednesday.
“They don’t enforce the gun laws that are on the books now,” Rick Lozier, longtime manager of Van Raymond’s Outfitters in Brewer, said as he watched Obama’s speech on TV while behind the store’s counter at noontime.
“What a hypocrite” Lozier added.
Don Barrett, owner of the Mill Creek Rod & Gun shop in Orrington, said shortly after the speech that he thinks the president is using the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., to push his gun control agenda.
“I think it’s just a ploy to disarm the general populace,” he said.
While gun merchants worried about the president’s plans for new gun control regulations, Dover-Foxcroft resident Joan Shapleigh said now is the time to require gun owners to register their weapons.
“I think there should be a ban on assault weapons, and registration,” she said, adding those steps should be taken while “assuring people who have hunting guns and recreation guns for target practice — we’re not after those guns.”
“Better background checks and increasing services for mental health” also are needed, said Shapleigh, who said she was once married to a gun collector.
She said guns should be registered just like cars or motorcycles or boats.
“I’m not against people who own guns, but I don’t think we need assault weapons at all,” Shapleigh said. “I don’t mind people hunting and bringing me some deer meat, or even target practice. That can be kind of fun.”
Tom Franklin, head of Portland-based Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, praised the president for his inclusive approach to gun control.
“It was not a divisive speech. He said this can be a win-win that’s good for school children and their parents worried about safety and good for responsible gun owners,’’ Franklin said, noting he was particularly pleased with the president’s proposed ban on assault rifles.
Mike Luce of Brewer, who was at Van Raymond’s with his son, Chris, on Wednesday shopping for a small rifle to shoot vermin, said he doubts if more regulations will work.
“Everybody knows if a bad guy wants a gun, he’ll get one,” Luce said.
The president mentioned four mass shootings in recent years and said the new regulations are needed to protect the country’s residents, especially children. Barrett said the federal government already has enough laws on the books and needs to enforce them and look at ways to address the country’s mental health issues.
“All these killings were done by people who were mentally incompetent,” he said.
He and Luce also blamed the media for giving the shooters “15 minutes of fame.”
“They never should be given a name,” Barrett said. “They never should be allowed to put their names out there.”
Whether the president’s proposed regulations would affect Uncle Henry’s Weekly Swap or Sell It Guide, which is based in Augusta, is unknown. People have purchased guns from individuals using the classified ad-style trade publication and those guns have ended up at out-of-state crime scenes, police in the New England region said in 2006.
Maine allows private owners to sell guns without a criminal background check of the buyer, and Uncle Henry’s has an entire section just for weapons. Messages left for the manager of the publication were not immediately returned Wednesday.
Existing gun rights and restrictions
Maine has a long tradition of gun ownership reinforced when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1987 that clearly states: “Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.”
The state’s constitutional vote came amid several federal gun laws that have been enacted in recent years.
The Federal Gun Control Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Oct. 22, 1968, bars felons, those involuntarily committed to mental institutions, addicted to illegal drugs, dishonorably discharged from the military or in the country illegally, from owning guns.
People convicted of domestic violence and those subject to protection-from-abuse orders were added to the prohibited list by the Lautenberg Act in 1996, and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed in November 1993. It mandated a five-day waiting period and background checks for all handgun purchases. The waiting period no longer applies and was replaced by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, that was put into place in November 1998 and checks all who purchase guns from a licensed dealer.
In 1994, Congress banned 19 types of assault weapons, but the law was allowed to sunset in 2004. The president said Wednesday that he wants Congress to reinstate this ban.
Gun sales spike
Future gun-control legislation has been a talking point for months, even before Obama was re-elected, but came to the forefront during the recent second presidential debate, when Obama responded to a question about gun control by saying “weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets.”
The president’s statement caused gun sales to increase in November, based on fears he might try to sign into law a new weapons bans, Maine gun shop owners said at the time.
Then the school shooting happened in Connecticut just before Christmas, and Obama again made speeches saying it was time for a change. G un sales skyrocketed.
“We now sell as many guns in a week that we would [typically] sell in a month,” Lozier said.
Buyers, who have a lot of questions about the gun control laws and what the president is proposing, are purchasing “ARs, AKs, and a tremendous amount of handguns,” he said. “Anything high caliber.”
Most who are getting guns “are buying just to pre-empt anything we would be instating,” Lozier said.
Obama asked U.S. citizens to contact their congressional leaders and ask that they support a renewed ban on the sale of assault weapons and high caliber ammunition. He asked them to support eliminating the loophole that allows private gun sales without a criminal background check.
He also is asking Congress to enact a new federal gun trafficking law to prevent gun sales from occurring over state lines.
The president said he has 23 executive orders ready to go to improve the NICS system; lift a federal research ban on gun violence; put in place additional counselors and school resource officers; and improve access to mental health services.
“This will be different,” Obama said of his gun control plans.
BDN reporter Judy Harrison and Reuters contributed to this story.