AUGUSTA, Maine — A national push for laws that keep guns out of hands that would do evil with them came to Augusta on Monday.
Organizers of a 25-state, 100-day road tour designed to pressure political leaders to require background checks for the purchase of all firearms made their case for stronger gun laws during a rally at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church, a few blocks away from the State House, where Maine lawmakers debated a background-check bill.
The effort is sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a 950-mayor coalition founded by Michael Bloomberg and Thomas Menino, the mayor of New York City and Boston, respectively. They set out Friday from Newtown, Conn., on the six-month anniversary of a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The few dozen people who gathered on Monday morning included Michelle Pfannenstiel, a former Newtown resident who now lives in Maine but was still rocked by the deadly massacre last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“For many of us, we have the luxury of keeping the tragedy of gun violence as something we experience through our computer, our radio or our TV,” said Pfannenstiel. “For the 33 families every day that are gutted by gun violence, they do not have that luxury. For the 26 families in my hometown of Newtown, the luxury of being at arm’s distance from horror stopped at Sandy Hook Elementary. For others that luxury stopped with a phone call from someone saying the unthinkable has happened.”
Pfannenstiel said she and her husband recently visited a school in Maine where their child will start kindergarten in the fall.
“We picked our town in Maine and our elementary school because they reminded me so much of my beloved Newtown,” she said. “As a mother I did not know that my heart would stop when I walked into my son’s elementary school for kindergarten orientation, that I would have to push myself into that school holding onto my husband trying not to cry and trying not to see all the innocence within those walls. I challenge our lawmakers and particularly our congressional delegation to look at that innocence.”
That request lay at the crux of the message Monday’s rally tried to make: to take any actions possible to minimize the flow of guns to people who would use them to harm others. One of those actions unfolded Monday afternoon in the Maine Senate, where lawmakers rejected LD 1240, An Act to Promote the Safe Use and Sale of Firearms, by a vote of 19-16. The bill, sponsored Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, would allow voluntary background checks and put a range of new restrictions on the sale of firearms, including outlawing the sale of firearms to a prohibited person and imposing drastically higher fines for providing fictitious information to a firearms dealer.
The measure, which might be reconsidered later in the Senate, garnered a 78-66 approval vote last week in the House of Representatives.
Augusta Mayor Bill Stokes, who is also chief of the criminal division in the Maine attorney general’s office — which means he oversees the prosecutions of the majority of murders in Maine — said he’s frustrated that passion for gun control measures seems to have died down in the six months since the Sandy Hook massacre.
“It can at times be frustrating after an event like Newtown that we don’t see the type of action or the response that we would like to get, and the temptation is to give up,” said Stokes. “Those who oppose responsible and reasonable gun control legislation expect just that: that we will give up, that we will fade off, that it will be another tragedy in a year or two that will re-energize us. What I think we need to remember is these types of cultural changes take time but they will happen.”
Stokes and other speakers Monday called on Congress and other legislative bodies to cede to 90 percent of Americans who say they support background checks on all potential gun buyers. That figure comes from a CBS News poll conducted in March. Several other polls have found high support for background checks, though gun advocates have contested them.
Larry Gilbert, a former U.S. marshal, Lewiston police chief and Lewiston mayor who announced last week that he will again run for mayor of that city, said that those seeking greater protections against gun violence will not allow the passage of time to deter them from their mission.
“We are gathered today in the spirit of hope to honor and remember but also to demand action,” said Gilbert. “We will not forget and we will not go away. … I can assure you that I will continue to speak out and demand our elected leaders to live up to their primary responsibilities to protect and serve our interests.”
Gilbert and others congratulated U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, for supporting a failed effort in the U.S. Senate to require background checks. They also applauded Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, for co-sponsoring a similar House bill and suggested they have more work to do with Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine.
Michaud spokesman Ed Gilman said the 2nd District congressman supports strengthening background checks and that following the failure of the Senate bill, Michaud “has been looking for ways to advance the issue in a way that will pass both chambers of Congress.
“He recently met with victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in order to hear about their experience and why they want to see change,” said Gilman in a response to questions emailed by the Bangor Daily News. “He also met with Sen. Joe Manchin and Congressman Mike Thompson, a leader on the issue in the House, to discuss options for moving forward. He remains committed to working with his colleagues in the House and Senate to develop and pass legislation that would strengthen background checks.”
Monday’s rally in Augusta was expected to go into the night as organizers took turns reading the names of 6,100 people who have died from gun violence since the Newtown killings. They called it the “No More Names” event.
Cathie Whittenberg of a group called States United to Prevent Gun Violence said Maine is one of the easier states in which to purchase a gun with no paperwork or background check, thanks to listings in private-sale publications such as Uncle Henry’s magazine.
“Maine is a very peaceful state and we’re fortunate that we have a low crime rate, but this giant loophole in the law makes us a very attractive place for criminals from other states who are looking to avoid background checks,” said Whittenberg. “That is not the way life should be.”