In the coming days, the U.S. Senate will take up gun control. In my short tenure, no issue has generated as much interest, public engagement or passion as this one. As the debate in the Senate begins, I think it is appropriate that I lay out my position as clearly as possible to the people of Maine. In thinking this through, I have sat with gun owners, hunters, long-time gun control advocates and citizens from across Maine. After a great deal of thought, here is where I stand:
1. The problem of gun violence in our society simply cannot be ignored. Every year, more than 30,000 people die from gun-shots — either accidental, suicide or crime related. Gun murders now total more that 10,000 a year — which is the equivalent of a Newtown tragedy every single day. Put another way, it’s as if a town the size of Auburn was wiped out — every man, woman and child — every year, year in and year out. No society that calls itself civilized can accept self-inflicted tragedy on this scale.
2. The Second Amendment is a fundamental and important part of our Constitution and must be respected and observed, and any legislation we pass must square with its terms and respect the rights of law-abiding citizens. I believe the steps outlined below meet that test.
3. Our experience here in Maine demonstrates that widespread gun ownership does not equate to widespread gun crime; we have one of the highest percentages of gun ownership in the country and one of the lowest rates of gun violence. This suggests to me that the key questions are “who can obtain a gun?” and “what are reasonable ways that guns can be kept out of the wrong hands?”
4. I have therefore concluded that the single most effective step we can take is to expand the current system of criminal background checks to all firearm transactions, with common sense exceptions for transfers within families. Just as is the case under the current gun dealer-only system, this can be done without creating a national gun registry and without burdening law-abiding citizens. Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and those few mentally ill persons who are prone to violence is the best defense we have against gun crime.
5. We should make it a federal crime to traffic guns between states for the purpose of providing them to people who could not purchase them legally and increase the penalties for straw purchasing — buying a gun for transfer to another who is legally prohibited from purchasing it themselves.
6. It is time to limit magazine size to no more than 10 rounds. Gun owners and sportsmen have told me that this limitation would not significantly inhibit their use of firearms and could save lives, particularly in a Newtown or Aurora-type situation.
7. After a great deal of thought, however, I am not prepared to support the proposed ban on so-called assault weapons — principally because I just don’t think it will work. It is important to emphasize that these weapons have exactly the same firing mechanism and functionality as the common semi-automatic hunting rifles owned by thousands of Maine residents. Although their looks may be more menacing, they do not shoot any faster, farther, or with more power than conventional hunting rifles; and contrary to popular belief, they are not fully automatic, with the ability to to spray bullets with one pull of the trigger. In addition, the vast majority of gun crimes — well over 90 percent — involve handguns, not rifles, assault or otherwise.
The proposed ban is really about the appearance of particular firearms rather than what they do — and banning a gun because we don’t like its looks will not, in my opinion, have a significant impact upon gun violence. In addition, at the time of the 1994 ban, manufacturers simply made minor cosmetic changes whereby banned guns were made exempt from the law, which rendered the ban largely ineffective. I expect the same thing would happen this time around.
8. Finally, it is essential that we do a better job of identifying — and helping — those with mental illness who may be prone to violent acts and take reasonable steps, including universal background checks, to limit their access to firearms.
This is a complex issue, and there are no simple answers, but I am convinced that the steps outlined above — particularly expanded background checks — will diminish the terrible toll that gun violence is taking in our society, while at the same time respecting the Second Amendment and the rights of our law-abiding neighbors who own and use firearms safely every day.
We owe ourselves and our children no less.
Independent Angus King represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.