A Bangor Daily News article on Feb. 12 about the South Portland parents of a shooting victim, who advocated for more effective measures to curb gun violence, quoted Jeff Weinstein, president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, as saying that the association would consider and in some cases support enhanced background checks for gun buyers. Weinstein’s response underscores the message too often lost in the gun debate: that there are points on which people can agree to help keep Mainers safe. Identifying these points is where we should focus our attention and energy.
A Coalition for a Safer Maine was formed on the premise that a respectful, open and constructive dialogue will help us identify measures that can curb violence in our state. The coalition, which includes representatives from law enforcement and the medical community, prosecutors, gun owners and anti-violence advocates, is supporting proposals that we believe can move us toward this goal.
Those proposals include the following: requiring background checks for all gun sales except casual sales among family, enhancing the data that Maine sends to national database to prevent those who are prohibited from having a gun from purchasing guns, and promoting more awareness around gun sales and ownership. We also are seeking to limit the number of rounds in ammunition clips.
These proposals do not seek to limit the type or number of guns that can be owned. They seek to keep guns out of the hands of those who are prohibited from owning them and to educate all Mainers about gun ownership.
Maine has a long history of responsible gun owners, hunters and sports enthusiasts. We have a low violent crime rate; benefit from effective partnerships among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies; and are known as a wonderful place to live, work and raise children. We are targeted, however, by criminals and others prohibited from owning guns who come from other states with more stringent guns laws seeking to obtain guns.
Gun-seeking criminals scour Maine’s swap magazines, where private sellers advertise their guns for sale, because private sellers are not required to have a background check done on the purchaser before the sale. Not only does this allow guns to get into the hands of those who should not have them, but it puts gun owners who sell to these prohibited persons at risk of having their gun end up in an out-of-state crime scene and the seller being drawn into a criminal investigation.
If background checks were required for all sales, except casual sales among family members, gun owners would have an insurance policy that neither they, nor their guns, would end up in the hands of prohibited people.
Background checks work, and many people and gun owners agree it is time to make this happen. Weinstein concurs, saying, “We encourage everybody who buys or sells a firearm to consistently go forward with a background check. Any normal person, any normal firearm owner, would feel terrible knowing they sold a firearm to somebody who committed a crime a week or two later.” Background checks can only work, however, if the data necessary to identify those who are prohibited from owning a gun are submitted to the national database.
The coalition believes that keeping guns out of the hands of those who have been found to be mentally ill is another step on the way to keeping Maine safe. A critical component of this “blue paper” part of the bill is that the prohibition on having a gun would be temporary. A process would be provided to restore the right to own a gun, since in many cases the situation that led to the individual’s mental illness is temporary and can be resolved through treatment.
Mainers want change. In a recent poll conducted by Portland-based Critical Insights, 79 percent of Mainers supported some restrictions. The issue of guns in our society, especially in a gun-owning state such as Maine, always has been controversial. We honor and should continue to respect that lawful and responsible gun ownership in Maine is our legacy and will continue to be, well past this discussion.
We’re all familiar with the phrase, “As goes Maine, so goes the nation.” Let us join to show the nation that a gun-friendly state also can be a gun-safe state. We invite legislators and all who have an interest to join us to look at all aspects of this issue, to bring all sides together, to study real solutions and, in the end, to come up with real answers.
We have begun the discussion by recommending legislation, which we believe is a modest, common-sense approach to this issue. We continue to invite dialogue, welcome partners in the debate and, above all, encourage action. We know that we do not have all the answers, but our experience and professional backgrounds require us to move beyond fears that paralyze progress and work together to keep Maine safe.
Larry Gilbert is the former mayor of Lewiston as well as a former U.S. marshal. Paula Silsby is the former U.S. attorney for Maine. They are co-chaimen of the Coalition for a Safer Maine.