Legislative panel lines up week of hearings on Maine gun bills

Posted April 07, 2013, at 6:53 a.m.
Last modified April 07, 2013, at 8:14 a.m.
Janet Mills
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Janet Mills Buy Photo

AUGUSTA — State lawmakers Friday were prepping themselves for a round of hearings, debates and decisions on proposed changes to Maine’s gun laws.

In an informational session, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard from several experts on the state’s gun laws, including Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

In the pipeline are more than 20 bills that look to address ssues revolving around the use and possession of firearms in Maine.

At least a dozen of those measures go to public hearings in a few days.

Many of the bills look to add restrictions, such as background checks at gun shows and private sales and capacity limits on ammunition clips.

Others would loosen gun control. For example, some bills would prohibit the state from enforcing federal gun laws. One proposal aims to completely eliminate the state’s permit requirement for carrying concealed handguns.

Mills on Friday gave lawmakers on the committee an overview of the state’s gun law history, including a state constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1987 that clarified the right to keep and bear arms in Maine was an individual right.

That amendment stripped from the constitution the words “for the common defense,” Mills said.

She pointed out that while Maine law has few mandatory minimum-sentence lengths, almost every crime involving a firearm, or in which a firearm is used in the commission of that crime, includes minimum prison time for those convicted.

Firearms also are considered an aggravating factor in Maine crimes, which can up the severity of punishment for people convicted of other crimes such as drug trafficking while in possession of a firearm, she said.

She reviewed the extent of violent crime in Maine committed with firearms, which is relatively low, and noted that about 25 percent of the state’s unattended deaths so far in 2013 were suicides in which firearms were used. Several of those involved juveniles.

“It’s a serious problem in this state,” Mills said, “a really tough thing to handle, a tough thing to deal with in statute. You could theoretically charge a parent with endangering the welfare of a child, if a child had access to a loaded gun in the house and used it against themselves. But this parent has already lost a child, so it’s a very tough thing.”

Domestic violence cases in Maine often involve firearms or threatening with firearms. Mills praised the Legislature for placing in Maine law provisions that allow judges to confiscate firearms in those cases.

“It’s not uncommon at all to go into court on a protection-order hearing day, in any court in this state, and to have dozens of cases on the docket,” Mills said. She said state judges often require the relinquishing of firearms while those cases are pending, “so that in the heat of passion somebody doesn’t go and grab a gun and do the wrong thing with it.”

Maine State Police also briefed the committee on the status of the state’s concealed-handgun permitting system and noted that most handgun permits in Maine are not issued by state police.

Lt. Scott Ireland said state police issue permits for people living in the Unorganized Territory, for any nonresident and for more than 300 towns and municipalities. In the past four or five months, Ireland said, state police received about 150 permit applications a day. He said last year they issued about 8,000 permits and that the waiting period for processing a permit was about 150 days.

Lawmakers asked what state police needed to expedite that process or whether that wait time was a necessary part of the process. Ireland said the wait times could be reduced with more staff and better technology.

Maine State Police Commissioner John Morris, a former Waterville police chief, also spoke to the committee and noted how permits actually look can vary from town to town, depending on who is issuing them.

“A selectman can write it on a brown paper bag and sign it,” Morris said.

Ireland has previously said state police would like to see a uniform permit design, making it easier for police, regardless of where they are in the state, to verify that a permit is valid.

Several other bills moving through the Legislature look to correct this issue, as well as to create a statewide database of permits for law enforcement use.

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