AUGUSTA, Maine — A new group announced Monday it wants Mainers in November 2016 to vote on a ballot question that would require criminal background checks for all gun sales.
Gun rights activists quickly labeled the effort as an example of Maine being targeted in a national effort for more gun control laws and predicted the referendum wouldn’t be successful in gun-friendly Maine.
The Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense Fund submitted an application to the secretary of state’s office Monday to force a question onto the ballot with a petition drive. The group’s “Background Check Initiative” would require all sales and transfers of guns be conducted through licensed gun dealers, which would ensure criminal background checks are performed every time.
The application was filed by Judi and Wayne Richardson of South Portland, whose 25-year-old daughter, Darien, was killed during a home invasion in her Portland apartment in 2010. Her slaying remains unsolved and the gun used in the crime was transferred at a gun show without a background check, according to a news release.
The application was also signed by Bucksport police Chief Sean Geagan, domestic violence advocate Laurie Fogelman, Christopher Dickens of Blue Hill and Amy Fiorilli of Otis.
“While nothing can bring back our daughter, we can and must take action to prevent other parents from going through the senseless pain and suffering of having a child or loved one taken by gun violence,” Judi Richardson said in a written statement. “A deadly loophole in Maine law makes it easy for criminals, domestic abusers and people with dangerous mental illness to buy guns online and at trade shows with no background check and no questions asked. This ballot measure will close that loophole.”
The group suggests private gun sales can still take place but the buyer and seller would have to visit a gun dealer to perform the background check.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he expects substantial cash from national sources, such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has poured millions of dollars into gun control efforts in recent years, including a successful 2014 campaign to expand background checks in Washington state.
“We’re one of the safest states in the country and one of the highest gun ownership states,” Trahan said. “[Gun control groups] think we’re a cheap date up here and we’re going to be the subject of another national agenda.”
Trahan acknowledged universal background checks sound good to many people at first, but the issue is not as simple as it seems.
“It sounds good when you hear it, but its implementation is much more difficult,” Trahan said. “You have to wonder how you’re going to enforce it, which would require a serious expansion of law enforcement. That is why we don’t have a universal system nationally today.”
Fogelman, a retired executive director of The Next Step Domestic Violence Project, said states that require background checks experience lower rates of women being shot to death by intimate partners.
“This initiative will give Maine the chance to join the group of states where women are safer from gun violence,” Fogelman said.
The proposed initiative includes exceptions from the background check requirement for things such as transfer of firearms between family members, for immediate self-defense needs and for hunters who might loan a fellow hunter a gun for a day.
If its application is approved, Maine Moms Demand Action would have until Jan. 22, 2016, to collect and submit at least 61,123 valid signatures from Maine residents to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.
Maine has some of the more relaxed gun sales laws in the country. It was one of a dozen states that opted to make little or no changes to its gun laws in 2013 in response to federal funding incentives offered after the December 2012 Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
From some perspectives, Maine relaxed its gun laws this year by repealing the requirement that gun owners obtain permits to carry concealed handguns. That new law goes into effect in October. Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, sponsored that bill. He said universal background checks are the first step toward creating a gun registry.
“When you really get underneath it and figure out what this is about, how do you verify a background check has happened at the point of sale unless you have a gun registry to accompany it?” Brakey said. “When we figure out this is a back-door way to create a gun registration, Maine people are going to reject it.”
Brakey, like Trahan, said he expects Bloomberg’s group, Everytown for Gun Safety, to fund the ballot initiative. There have been media reports that Nevada, Arizona and Maine are among the states Bloomberg’s group has been eyeing. Bloomberg’s group spent more than $4 million in Washington state last year and a press release circulated Monday bore “@everytown.org” email addresses.
“If Michael Bloomberg wants to come in and drop hundreds of thousands of dollars, as he has in the past, to try to get people to consent to background checks and a back-door gun registration, I think he’s going to waste a lot of money,” Brakey said.
Elizabeth Allen, a spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety, said funding decisions will be made “along the way.”
“It will be a long campaign and the more than 60,000 supporters of background checks in Maine will be involved,” she wrote in response to questions from the BDN.
Nationally, background checks in gun sales are trending upwards, especially those involving people with mental health problems. Queries to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System went from 1.1 million in 2011 to 3.4 million in 2014. From 2010 to 2013, the number of people who were denied purchase of a firearm by the background check system increased from about 1,300 denials in 2010 to nearly 3,000 in 2013.
In Maine, the number of background checks for gun sales increased 76 percent between 1999 and 2014.
The Maine Legislature passed a law in 2013 that would have imposed fines on gun dealers found to have not required background checks in gun sales, but the law was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. The veto was sustained by the Legislature.
In 2013, a federal effort to require background checks died in the U.S. Senate.