PORTLAND — Portland’s top city and school officials joined leaders from hundreds of cities nationwide Monday – one month after the massacre in Newtown, Conn. – to call for tighter controls on the purchase and distribution of firearms.
Portland Mayor Michael F. Brennan, flanked by education, police and medical officials, called for universal background checks for gun purchasers; a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; and enhanced federal penalties for gun trafficking.
“There are two rights that are involved here,” said Brennan. “The right of people to have access to guns. But there is also the right that we have as a community to protect our children and protect our citizens. We want to make sure we enact common-sense proposals that balance these two rights.”
The news conference came on the one-month anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and one day before Vice President Joe Biden is expected to announce national gun-control proposals.
Sponsored by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which counts more than 800 members, Monday’s call for tighter controls is part of the advocacy group’s efforts to add a local impetus to the impending gun debate in Washington.
Currently, background checks are only required for gun purchases made through licensed dealers. The city officials called for background checks for private sales and transactions at gun shows, which are now exempt.
Proposals to reinstitute the ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004, may be the most controversial of the proposed limits.
A January poll of 600 state residents, commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, found Mainers more likely to own guns than average Americans, but also more likely to support certain restrictions.
The poll indicated that few in the state – 5 percent – would support outlawing guns. But 79 percent of respondents said they would support some restrictions on firearms, and 61 percent said they would support banning high-capacity magazines of 10 rounds or more.
Slightly more than half of the Mainers polled – 51 percent – support limits on assault weapons, compared with 44 percent support nationally.
The news conferences here and in other cities Monday also were intended by the mayors group to unveil a national advertising campaign and a report accusing the National Rifle Association of limiting the federal government’s ability to collect and analyze data on gun-related injuries and deaths.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Monday that part of the solution to gun violence also is improved care for the mentally ill.
Police officers now often act as first-responders to individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis. When firearms are added to the mix, the results are often deadly, he said.
“That just tells you the system is broken,” Sauschuck said. “I believe we could take care of those individuals, and each other, better.”
Meanwhile, advocates for gun rights in Maine and elsewhere continue to criticize efforts to restrict assault weapons, which they say bear no significant difference from rifles used to hunt wildlife.
One local advocate, Jeff Weinstein of Yarmouth, attended the news conference Monday as an observer and spoke up against the push for stricter regulations. Weinstein made headlines last month when he argued after the Newtown shootings that teachers licensed to carry a concealed handgun should take weapons into schools as a deterrent.
“Essentially, you have to balance the gun rights against some means of being sure that only appropriate people get and use firearms,” he said.
Weinstein reiterated his position on arming teachers, and said that he believed some officials at the presentation Monday hope to use a ban on assault weapons as a stepping stone to outlawing handguns. “They’re using the semiautomatic rifle as just another means of drawing attention to their cause,” he said.
The notion of arming teachers was dismissed by Emmanuel Caulk, Portland school superintendent, who said Monday that teachers are hired to focus on instructing students — not shooting at threatening intruders. “They (teachers) should not be expected to act as armed guards to serve as judge, jury and executioner,” Caulk said.
As Caulk and other city leaders push for regulations, school superintendents and educators across the state continue to react to the Newtown shootings by re-examining safety plans.
David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, said an inter-agency group charged with evaluating school safety procedures has not yet made any recommendations. A preliminary report is due in about a month.
In Yarmouth, a previously scheduled audit of the district’s safety procedures garnered increased attention from parents.
In Freeport, a community group sponsored by state Rep. Sara Gideon will hold a public forum and panel discussion later this month on guns, mental health and the American culture of violence.
A recent proposal to redesign the Freeport High School campus includes a revamped main entrance with a locked inner door that would allow staff to see who is attempting to enter the building before they’re inside.
In South Portland, the superintendent was scheduled to discuss districtwide safety plans at a school board meeting Monday.
And in Cumberland and North Yarmouth schools, officials on Tuesday plan to unveil a host of changes to school security in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: