December 17, 2012

Wave of gun control bills expected at Maine Legislature

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

State lawmakers expect a wave of gun control bills in the wake of the mass shooting in Connecticut that claimed 28 lives, including 20 school children. But even as the details of the massacre embolden calls for additional background checks or limiting the bullet capacity of some firearms, such legislation faces an uphill battle in Maine, a state that has previously rejected similar measures and recently loosened state gun laws.

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Justin Alfond

Contributed photo

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David Trahan

Over the past two years the Legislature has passed laws that allow concealed weapons permit holders to stow their guns in their vehicles on public property, including parking lots at the capitol complex in Augusta, prisons and courthouses. Over objections of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, lawmakers also passed a companion bill allowing employees with concealed weapons permits to leave their guns locked in their cars at work.

The legislation is less controversial than so-called stand-your-ground law that some blamed for the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, or proposals that allow guns on college campuses. Nonetheless, Maine is part of a national proliferation of pro-gun bills that appear to defy President Barack Obama's belief that lack of gun regulation in the country has led to too many gun-related tragedies.

The recent loosening of Maine gun laws was overseen by the previous Republican-led Legislature. Democrats have regained the majority, but so far the new leaders appear cool to reacting to the Connecticut shootings with a sweeping overhaul of Maine's gun laws.

In a written statement, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said there isn't a simple answer to the mass killings, but a solution involves "law enforcement, educators, mental health providers and family members."

Ericka Dodge, Alfond's spokeswoman, said that while the Connecticut shooting was a cultural tipping point for action, the policy response would be broader than access to guns.

"This isn't just about guns," Dodge said. "It's about our mental health services and securing our schools."

Other Democratic lawmakers agreed.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, said that while there holes in the state policies governing access to firearms, filling them would only address part of the problem.

"The real theme here is that violence is the default answer to some people affected by mental illness," said Dion, adding that "when it spins out of control, other people pay high consequences."

The hints of a multi-pronged policy approach echo messaging on the national level. Despite Obama's recent vow to prevent future mass killings, his administration has indicated gun control won't be the only focus.

Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary, told reporters Monday that gun violence was "a complex problem that will require a complex solution."

Obama has previously expressed support for reinstating the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired several years ago.

Gun control advocates say the time for the assault weapons ban is now. In Maine, advocates held a vigil Sunday night in Portland stressing that same point. They also called for reforms in Maine, including background checks for gun purchases at gun shows and private sales and limiting the size of a firing magazine.

Thomas Franklin, a board member with Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, urged lawmakers to stand up to the National Rifle Association. Franklin said Maine could show the nation that grief can be turned into action.

Gun control advocates blame the deep-pocket NRA and its influence on state and federal lawmakers for a proliferation of pro-gun laws amid increasing examples of violence.

The Sunlight Foundation reported Monday that the NRA this year spent more than 4,100 times as much on the federal election as the nation's leading gun control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, $24.28 million to $5,816. The NRA has spent 73 times more than the Brady Campaign lobbying the 112th Congress.

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