PORTLAND — Since before “Bert and I,” Mainers have been proud of their common sense and common decency.

But when the subject is guns, this respect for community often gives way to more self-centered views.

Making safer our food, water, air or job sites is fine, but making gun ownership safer for us all is widely perceived as an assault on inalienable and absolute personal rights.

The social cost of this somewhat paranoid attitude has been detailed graphically in several recent Press Herald accounts of unregulated gun transfers, nationally and locally.

In Maine and many other states, thousands of guns are sold annually with no background checks and no written records of the transaction, at gun shows and through “private sales” such as through Uncle Henry’s. Many of these sales are made in violation of federal law (which prohibits sales to felons, domestic abusers, the mentally ill and other categories) and state law.

And as the Press Herald accounts made very clear, some of these illegal sales are made to undercover law enforcement officers, with severe consequences for the seller.

The Maine Legislature is no more willing to stand up to the lobbying power of the NRA than are most other legislatures, unfortunately, so the adoption of even common-sense improvements to Maine gun laws has been difficult.

For example, despite a recent statewide poll showing more than 88 percent support for requiring background checks of handgun sales at gun shows, the Legislature in 2009 refused to even consider such a bill.

But equally disturbing is the attitude of some gun sellers that they should be immune from the common sense and common decency that make Maine such a strong and valued community.

Even if it is not in violation of federal law, who would want to sell a gun to a stranger?

Why would any seller not want to require a background check (that can be performed at any gun dealer at a nominal cost) before selling any gun?

Maine’s gun laws are far from perfect, but what is most needed to make Maine safer for all of us – including gun owners and their families – is a more responsible attitude toward gun transfers by gun owners.

Many – probably most – gun owners are responsible. Many do require background checks, as do some gun show operators for non-dealer exhibitors.

But far too many guns are sold in Maine through unregulated channels, which makes it easy for felons and other criminals to buy any gun immediately, no questions asked.

Maine is the No. 1 supplier of crime guns to Massachusetts. Maine’s lax gun laws attract drug dealers to Maine, where they can both sell drugs and buy guns, often with drugs as the currency. Maine’s high rates of teenage suicide and domestic violence are made worse by easy access to guns. Maine has a gun problem.

Major improvement of Maine’s gun laws would be simple, common-sensical and economical. Indeed, it is exactly what the NRA has been yapping about for years: Let’s enforce existing gun laws!

Background checks for all gun transfers would do that, and only that – it would not deprive anyone of the right to buy or own a gun, it would only make sure that anyone buying a gun was not buying it in violation of existing law. Period.

A California study concluded that every murder costs the state at least $1 million – to prosecute the defendant; usually to pay for his and the prosecution’s legal costs; to care for the defendant for many years if not for life; and to compensate the family of the victim and, too often, of police officers injured or killed.

Enforcement of a mandatory background-check law would be practically free – law enforcement already monitors compliance with background- check laws and illegal sales.

Very soon we will have the opportunity to see more of the “gun rights” advocates’ views of common-sense and concern for our Maine community – just watch the print and blog response to this column!

But seriously, Maine deserves better – better laws, better attitudes, better safety. We don’t need to wait for a school shooting in Maine, we can do it now and easily.

This is not (contrary to the NRA’s claims) a case where gun owners lose and the public wins, or vice versa. It is a much more simple and common-sensical case where we all can win.

We can protect the rights of gun owners, improve public safety, save lives and save money.

Makes sense to me.

 

– Special to the Press Herald