Many Mainers vote for their public servants based on character rather than political party. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud faces a character test on the gun issue. He has a unique opportunity to move the gun responsibility issue forward by joining 186 other members of the House as co-sponsor of HR 1565, the House’s universal background check legislation.
This bill will require background checks for private gun sales in commercial contexts — including sales at gun shows, on the Internet and through classified ads such as Uncle Henry’s. While co-sponsoring HR 1565 will require a clear change in the 2nd District lawmaker’s former position on gun responsibility, it will demonstrate the strength of character that independent voters demand.
A wise public servant will change position when confronted with new facts, new evidence or responsibility to a broadened constituency. For each of these reasons he should act decisively to support universal background checks.
New facts: We need to preclude Maine from becoming a portal through which dangerous and unusual weapons are transferred to urban centers where many of our families live. After the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., nearby states strengthened their background check and other gun laws. Connecticut now requires background checks for all gun, ammunition and magazine sales, and it created a registry of weapons offenders. It also prohibits high-capacity magazines and adds more than 100 firearms to a list of banned assault weapons.
As a result of that legislation, and Maine’s far weaker laws, my family members who teach in Connecticut public schools face the risk of felons buying guns at a private sale in Maine and taking them south in a car trunk. My granddaughters who live in Boston are at risk from guns that slip through Maine’s gun show and Internet sale loopholes.
New evidence: The National Instant Criminal Background Check System has blocked more than 2 million gun sales to felons, the severely mentally ill and domestic abusers over the past 15 years. But current law requires only federally licensed dealers to conduct background checks, meaning that prohibited individuals can evade checks by buying guns from “private” sellers, including those at gun shows and online. HR 1565 would close this gaping loophole by extending the background check requirement to private sales at gun shows, on the Internet and through classified ads.
Background checks do not burden legitimate gun buyers. Under HR 1565, private parties no longer will transfer weapons in a parking lot. There simply will meet at a gun store where the dealer runs the usual two-minute computerized background check on the buyer.
Leadership for a broader constituency: As an aspiring governor, Michaud seeks votes in southern Maine. These voters, as well as the mayors of five Maine cities, strongly support strengthening background checks. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District was an early co-sponsor of HR 1565. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King voted for the background check legislation in the Senate, sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. Collins also co-sponsored bipartisan “straw purchase” legislation that would strengthen laws against shadow purchases for those who should not have access to guns.
Michaud is a member of the Blue Dog caucus and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. He has accepted money from the National Rifle Association. For these reasons, his co-sponsorship of HR 1565 will send a message of courage to other legislators who may be on the fence. In recent months, he has made very general statements in support of closing background check loopholes. Now is the time for specific action supported by most Mainers. It is time to move off the sidelines.
We need to know if each gubernatorial candidate would sign or veto legislation that strengthens background checks. Michaud can provide such assurance by joining the 186 co-sponsors of HR 1565. This would demonstrate the strength of character that Maine’s independent voters require from their public servants.
Peter W. Sly of Brooklin is a lawyer and member of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence.