AUGUSTA – A new coalition is backing legislation that would require background checks for private gun sales, ban high-capacity magazines and prevent people who are seriously mentally ill from buying guns.

The group, Coalition for a Safer Maine — No More Newtowns!, is supporting the bill submitted by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Dion said the group wants to take measures that would protect gun rights while reducing the risk of gun violence.

“This isn’t about taking away Second Amendment rights,” Dion said. “It’s about viewing the Second Amendment in a contemporary, modern society.”

Dion said the group wants to prevent a tragedy like the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., from happening in Maine. A 20-year-old man armed with a semi-automatic rifle with high-capacity ammunition clips killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself.

Lawmakers have submitted 37 bills this session related to gun violence. Dion said the criminal justice committee will probably take up the bills in April.

He said a package of several reforms that addresses mental health and gun education stands the best chance of winning approval in the Legislature, which has a long history of rejecting gun-control measures.

But Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, the ranking House Republican on the criminal justice committee, said that opposition to additional gun regulations is so strong in the Legislature that he doubts an omnibus bill could pass. Some individual bills might get support, he said.

Gun rights are hugely important for many Republicans, particularly those in rural districts, said Rep. Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, the House minority leader.

“We want to do our part in preventing anything like Sandy Hook happening in Maine,” he said. He added, however, that he’s concerned about measures that would violate Maine’s Constitution.

In 1987, voters amended it to say “Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.”

Former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert and former U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby are co-chairs of the new coalition. The Maine Council of Churches and the Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence have also joined the group.

Other supporters include South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins and Robert McAfee, a retired surgeon and past president of the Maine Medical Association.

McAfee said doctors view gun violence as a public health issue. “The surgeons of this country are telling you, we are no match in the emergency rooms and operating rooms for the increasingly lethal weapons of our time — especially in the wrong hands,” he said.

The Maine Medical Association has not taken a position on Dion’s bill, although it will likely support parts of it, said Gordon Smith, a lobbyist for the group.

The association’s board last month adopted a resolution supporting background checks for all gun transactions, including private sales. Currently in Maine, guns may be sold at gun shows and by private individuals without submitting the buyer’s name to the federal background check system.

The association also believes that police agencies in Maine should provide the names of “dangerous individuals” who are prohibited from buying guns under federal and state law. Currently, Maine police do not provide that information to the FBI.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com