AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats in the Legislature may look to make big strides in health care and compromise on ending the annual transportation funding shortfall next year, but they won’t be using their majority to press on a perennially thorny issue: guns.
Gun safety measures got little traction in the State House this year, with the most contentious fight on a “red flag” bill ending in a compromise between Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. That trend is expected to continue next year.
The Legislative Council blocked all but one bill related to guns from being introduced during its fall sessions. The surviving effort from state Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, would ban firearms on nursery school and child care facility properties. It remains tabled.
That’s frustrating to some Democrats and gun safety advocates, who thought things would go differently when Democrats took power, and speaks to how much of a nonstarter gun control is in Maine.
“At times I’ve been disappointed, but I really do understand where folks on the other side of the aisle, and some Democrats, are coming from,” said state Rep. Victoria Doudera, D-Camden, who proposed a bill for next session that would have made leaving loaded firearms accessible to children a crime under the state’s child endangerment laws. “I think it’s a complicated issue that taps into a lot of feelings.”
The governor’s relationship with gun control efforts is complicated. Mills told reporters in January the “people have already spoken” on background checks after a proposal similar to the one defeated in a 2016 referendum was introduced.
And she got a shout-out from the NRA in April for supporting a bill related to shooting ranges, but is currently otherwise at odds with the national lobbying group with a 13 percent rating, according to Vote Smart. That hasn’t always been true — she had an A+ rating in 2007 when she was a state legislator representing Farmington.
The first red flag bill this year would have allowed courts to order a person deemed dangerous to temporarily surrender his or her guns. Mills initially seemed to support a similar bill while campaigning in the Democratic primary. But she ultimately worked with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to craft a bill that linked gun seizures to mental health evaluations, which passed overwhelmingly in both houses.
It was supported by gun control group Maine Gun Safety Coalition, although it called it “no substitute” for a red flag law in testimony. And Maura Pillsbury, an outspoken gun safety activist in Freeport, said the bill stigmatized people with mental health issues and that Mills hasn’t “kept her promise” to act on public safety.
Spokeswoman Lindsay Crete defended the governor’s record Friday, pointing to her efforts around gun control and domestic violence, and calling the revised gun bill a “success” that included input from both gun control and gun rights advocates.
Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Executive Director David Trahan said he can see common ground for both sides in the form of safety training. “If these groups want to talk, let’s talk about education first,” he said. “That’s how you build relationships long term.”
Pillsbury agreed more education is needed. But it may be a while before gun control and gun rights groups can come to the table.
“I think the Legislature … [has] bought into this idea that this gun culture and gun reform are mutually exclusive,” she said. “I think this idea that they can’t coexist, that’s just wrong.”