January 16, 2013

Mainers split over Obama's gun proposals

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The response in Maine to President Obama's long-awaited gun control package was predictably mixed, reflecting the nearly impossible task awaiting the administration.

The centerpieces of the plan unveiled Wednesday include background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on sales of assault rifles and a limit on high-capacity magazines or clips.

The president also called for more funding for mental health services and school safety, and better sharing of information.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and a former Republican state lawmaker, said none of the proposals surprised him.

He said the alliance's board of directors plans to review the details of Obama's plan, but he opposes any further restrictions on guns. He does support more background checks and the sharing of information about people with mental illness.

"Firearms for self-defense are different than those for hunting, so we shouldn't compare the two," he said. "But if we further regulate guns for self-defense, we're limiting people's ability to defend themselves."

Trahan said he thinks that leaders in Washington and Augusta should focus on finding common ground before tackling some of the more controversial measures.

Jeff Weinstein, director of the Maine Gun Owners Association, said a ban on assault weapons would be a slippery slope leading to a ban on all semi-automatic rifles, something that Americans wouldn't support.

"'Assault' rifles are semi-automatics virtually identical to many rifles used for hunting, competitive shooting, and personal defense, with the only difference being cosmetic," Weinstein said in a news release Wednesday. "This leads to the question, how long will it take for the federal government to 'expand' their definition of 'assault' rifle to include those firearms as well?"

Weinstein said he supports the idea of expanding background checks, but he has reservations about how the information would be used.

William Harwood of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence said he is pleased with the president's proposal.

"The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary really changed the landscape of this discussion," he said. "The big question is whether there is enough public support, but I think people are starting to feel like 'enough is enough.'"

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Police Chief Michael Sauschuk held a news conference this week to support gun control measures, many of which are now in the president's proposal.

"Since the shooting in Newtown just over a month ago, mayors across the country and more than a million grass-roots supporters have joined forces to press Washington for a plan to end gun violence," Brennan said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "Today's announcement shows that our voices have been heard. The simple fact of the matter is that reasonable laws and regulations can make a difference in our effort to reduce gun violence."

Opinions are split among Americans.

In a Pew Research Center poll, 85 percent of respondents said they support background checks at gun shows and for private gun sales, but just 54 percent support a ban on high-capacity clips and 55 percent support a ban on assault weapons.

Those attitudes are mirrored by Maine residents. A poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram last week showed that while 55 percent of Mainers said they had a gun on their property, 79 percent support some restrictions, including 61 percent who support a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips.

Only 51 percent of Mainers polled supported banning semi-automatic guns.

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