January 19, 2013

Maine legislators introduce dozens of gun-control bills

Expectations are for Legislature to be slow, cautious in considering new restrictions

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Gun-control advocates in Maine hope that the public outcry about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last month will lead to new state laws that reduce the risk of gun violence.

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Michael Hein, of Augusta, holds a sign in front of the Maine State House during a Gun Appreciation Day rally on Saturday, Rallies were held nationwide Saturday by gun-rights advocates, four days after President Barack Obama unveiled a sweeping plan to curb gun violence.

AP photo by Glenn Adams

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Lawmakers have submitted dozens of bills for consideration. While the debate on those bills has yet to begin, it's already clear that the Maine Legislature won't be following its counterpart in New York, which last week rushed through a sweeping package of gun-control measures.

Maine lawmakers will take a much more cautious approach -- and they intend to take their time.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee won't take up the bills until spring, to establish some emotional distance from the school massacre just before Christmas in which 20 children and six educators were killed by a lone gunman, said the committee's co-chairman, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.

He said he also wants to wait and see how Congress responds to President Barack Obama's proposed gun control initiatives, which include banning military-style assault rifles and high capacity magazines. Moreover, the delay will allow his committee and legislative staff to organize public hearings around common issues and gather background information, he said.

"These bills won't be heard for quite while. They are going to have to simmer," he said.

Friday was the deadline for submitting bills for the legislative session. In all, 1,775 bills have been submitted this session, but the list won't be made public until Jan. 28, after they are processed by the Revisor's Office. Gerzosky said at least 40 of the bills are aimed at stemming gun violence.

Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence on Tuesday will announce its legislative agenda and identify organizations and lawmakers who have joined its coalition.

Among the group's goals is curbing the flow of guns into the hands of those who have a history of violence and criminal intent, said Thomas Franklin, the group's president.

He said the group takes pride in the state's long history of responsible gun ownership and hopes to engage lawmakers in a "constructive dialogue" about how to promote safety and protect citizens from violence.

"This is a debate about our future and the safety of our families," Franklin said in a written statement.

One lawmaker who has joined that coalition, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who co-chairs the criminal justice committee, said there will be push for a comprehensive approach that includes improving gun safety education, upgrading school security, banning high capacity magazines, requiring background checks for gun shows and private sales, and restricting access to firearms for the mentally ill.

Dion said he expects that some of the best ideas will be consolidated into a single bill intended to win broad support by including initiatives that won't incur the wrath of gun-rights advocates.

For example, Dion said, current law prohibits people who have been committed involuntarily to a mental institution from possessing a firearm.

However, primarily because of funding shortages, state police and the court system have not been able to compile information on those who have been committed involuntarily and send it to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Dion said many lawmakers want to fix this flaw, which could require creating a system of electronic records rather than paper records.

Dion said he has submitted legislation that would allow police to search and seize guns at the home of someone who has been committed involuntarily to a mental institution. He said the guns would be returned to the person once doctors certify the person is mentally healthy.

He said the bill also would change the standard for when someone could be committed involuntarily to a mental institution. The person now must pose an "imminent" threat to harm himself or others. Dion said the bill would change the standard of threat from "imminent" to a "reasonable likelihood."

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