June 25, 2018
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Correcting the record on guns

By Cathie Whittenburg, Special to the BDN

“The liberty of any person to own a military-style assault weapon and a high-capacity magazine and keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life.”

Those words were part of David Wheeler’s testimony to a Connecticut legislative committee. Wheeler’s 6-year-old son, Ben, was one of the children tragically killed in the Newtown, Conn., shooting.

The Maine Legislature has already started debating the numerous gun bills submitted this session. And while there will be passionate opinions on both sides, it is important that legislators start the debate with the same base of facts.

A Feb. 17 OpEd in the Bangor Daily News, “ Guns are not the enemy,” contained statements that need to be corrected.

Here in Maine, we are fortunate to enjoy a low crime rate, but we do not have the “second highest rate of gun ownership” in the United States. This statement has been passed around for years, but no matter how many times it is repeated, it is still not true.

Maine’s gun ownership rate ranks solidly in the middle. A peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology ranked Maine as 28th in gun ownership (with 1st being the highest). A study in the American Academy of Pediatrics put Maine a little higher, at 24. Either way, Maine is nowhere near the top of the list.

And while some households in Maine “possess firearms by the dozens,” it should be pointed out that the majority of people in the state choose not to own a firearm. And only about 3 percent of the population has concealed weapons permits.

When it comes to the rate of firearm-related deaths (which include homicide, suicide and unintentional gun deaths), the Center for Disease Control shows that in 2010 Maine’s gun death rate was twice that of Massachusetts and even slightly above California’s gun death rate. It should also be noted that the firearm-death rate in Washington, D.C., has fallen steadily since the crack-cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, not only has crime been cut in half, the homicide rate in D.C. in 2012 was the lowest in 52 years.

In 1987, Maine voters did not insert any language into the constitution, but rather removed language. The result of the 1987 vote was that the Legislature removed the phrase “for the common defense” from the Maine Constitution. The vote was intended to clarify an individual right, not an absolute right.

Legislative history makes it clear that this change was not intended to annul existing gun laws nor to restrict the state’s right to regulate firearms. In the case of State v. Brown the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine considered the question: “Did the 1987 amendment change create an absolute right for Maine citizens to keep and bear arms?” It answered with a decisive: “no.” The Court found that both before and after the 1987 amendment, section 16 asserted that the right “shall never be questioned,” but the state had historically regulated gun ownership in spite of that phrase and could continue to do so.

In 1990, the Maine court found that statutes regulating the possession of firearms by convicted felons serve the public welfare, and a statute requiring a permit to carry a concealed weapon did not violate an individual’s rights because the statute was “a reasonable response to the justifiable public safety concern engendered by the carrying of concealed weapons.”

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that, while there was an individual right to own a gun in the home for protection, “like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

The majority of Maine gun owners are responsible, law-abiding people. But our laws need to be strengthened. Guns are used too often to threaten and harm in cases of domestic violence. And the lack of background checks in private gun sales attracts criminals from other states looking to easily obtain guns. As a consequence, Maine is a leading source state for crime guns in Massachusetts.

We all deserve the right to be safe and free from gun violence. But when anyone can buy a gun through a private sale with no background check — no matter how dangerous the person, no matter how dangerous the gun — no one is free from the threat of gun violence.

Cathie Whittenburg, of Portland, is a communications consultant to States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a national organization working to decrease gun death and injury.

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