Following the unspeakable tragedy of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre last December, people across the nation were rightfully looking for answers. How could it happen? How did such a deranged, mentally ill individual get access to a deadly weapon and walk into a school building and open fire, killing 20 young, innocent children and six staff members?
The Sandy Hook tragedy prompted the U.S. Congress and state legislatures across the nation to propose new laws designed to prevent gun violence.
Maine was no exception. About two-dozen gun-related bills were introduced to our Legislature during this session.
Nearly every one of these bills went before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, where they were examined carefully. Hundreds of members of the public, including Second Amendment supporters and gun control advocates, filled the halls of the Capitol to testify.
At the heart of the debates was this fundamental question: How do we protect members of the public without violating the right to bear arms that is spelled out in the United States Constitution and even more specifically in the Maine Constitution, which states, “Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.”
One important fact guided me during these discussions and when it came time to vote on the gun bills. A common thread in the Sandy Hook, Colorado movie theater, Virginia Tech massacres and others is that the shooter had a mental illness. I believe we can all agree that people with mental illnesses and convicted felons should not have access to firearms. Therefore, our focus needed to be on preventing these people from becoming a threat to the public.
Significant progress was made on this front. Under federal law, people who have been committed to a mental health institution by a judge are prohibited from owning a firearm. A bill was introduced this session that would have required the Maine court system to forward the names of these individuals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Due to a lack of funding and technological challenges, Maine’s court system had been unable to send information on thousands of these individuals to NICS. But shortly after the legislation was introduced, the Maine court system began providing this information to NICS.
I have been working and will continue to work with the Maine attorney general’s office and the Criminal Law Advisory Commission on legislation designed to keep people who have exhibited signs of mental illness and threatening behavior from accessing firearms. Currently, law enforcement is unable to do this until these individuals have committed a crime.
We also took steps to protect the rights of gun owners. After the Bangor Daily News requested the names of all concealed weapons permit holders in Maine, the Legislature passed a bill that will require this information to be kept confidential. At the same time, the Judiciary Committee, on which I serve as the ranking Republican, formulated a system that will allow important statistical data about concealed carry holders to be made available to the public without disclosing confidential information about permit holders.
Lawmakers also voted to keep in place a law passed by the previous legislature that allows concealed weapons holders to store their weapons in their cars when they are at work. This law is important to Maine residents who are victims of domestic abuse and have taken out protection from abuse orders against other individuals.
At the same time, following on an executive order from Gov. Paul LePage, the state will soon likely be taking steps to strengthen the law that prohibits those who have had protection from abuse orders filed against them from possessing firearms.
The Legislature also wisely rejected a bill that would have placed limitations on how many rounds of ammunition an individual is allowed to keep in his or her ammunition feeding device (magazine).
Other bills addressed school safety specifically. One that I introduced, and was narrowly defeated, would have allowed properly-trained school staff members to carry a concealed weapon on campus. A bill that did pass will require the Maine Department of Education to advise local districts on improving security at all public school buildings around the state.
Across the U.S., some other states and cities are trying to impose new taxes on firearms and ammunition in an effort to prevent gun violence. I believe this is shortsighted and will only have the effect of punishing law-abiding gun owners, much like many of the bills that were introduced to the Maine Legislature. The gun bills we did pass, however, will hopefully help keep firearms out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, represents Maine Senate District 29 which includes all of Washington County and the Hancock County towns of East Hancock Township, Eastbrook, Franklin, Great Pond, Osborn, Waltham and the Penobscot County Towns of Carroll Plantation, Drew Plantation, Lakeville, Prentiss Township and Whitney Township.