SOUTH PORTLAND – Law enforcement officers across our state keep Maine’s citizens safe every day. Now, we must ask our representatives in Congress to do their part by supporting legislation that would assist police in protecting our communities from the horrific consequences of gun violence.
Those of us in the law enforcement community understand — and the people of Maine overwhelmingly agree — that stopping illegal gun trafficking and requiring background checks for all gun purchases are measures that will help keep firearms out of the wrong hands.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System has already prevented almost 2 million sales to potentially dangerous individuals by conducting checks that take as little as 90 seconds.
Still, our current background check system is broken. Under current federal law, gun buyers can avoid background checks simply by purchasing from private sellers at gun shows or over the Internet.
Nearly 40 percent of gun transfers are conducted through this loophole, with no paperwork and no questions asked. It comes out to more than 6.6 million guns that were transferred or sold without a background check each year.
Criminals know how to manipulate this system, and without effective legislation, we are powerless to stop them.
This loophole is not just a bureaucratic error — it has real and potentially devastating consequences for Maine’s communities.
Just over three years ago, Darien Richardson and her boyfriend were shot by a masked burglar in Portland. Richardson, a Bowdoin College graduate in her mid-20s, died from her injuries. The gun was used in another murder a week later, but because it was purchased from a private seller who did not conduct a criminal background check, law enforcement could not track the weapon.
We must not allow these tragedies to continue, and we must not stand in the way of justice.
Our state’s elected representatives in Washington should listen to the voices of those who put them in office. According to a recent poll by the bipartisan coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an astonishing 85 percent of Maine citizens support requiring background checks for every gun sale. Moreover, 82 percent of gun owners nationwide support this common-sense reform.
Even groups that typically oppose new gun regulations, such as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, have embraced the fundamental logic of these efforts and backed attempts to increase voluntary background checks by private dealers.
After all, it would be extremely easy for private sellers to conduct background checks through any one of Maine’s many licensed gun dealers. While the state has 25 McDonald’s locations and 25 Starbucks coffeehouses, Maine is home to 468 licensed gun dealers. An estimated 98.5 percent of state residents live within 10 miles of a gun dealer.
In Congress, several bills are pending in the wake of the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and far too many other communities across the country. These include a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins that would better equip law enforcement to halt the flow of illegal guns from states like Maine to those with less stringent laws, dismantling the so-called “iron pipeline.”
However, in negotiations over the bill requiring universal background checks, some lawmakers are insisting that we remove any consequences for buyers who fail the background checks mandated by the new law. Under this toothless system, unlicensed sellers would not be obligated to report or track which buyers possessed dangerous backgrounds.
As a longtime police chief, I cannot support a reform that falls short of saving lives and clearing the way for police to do their jobs. By applying the current law to all gun sales, we can both require dealers to keep records of all transactions and mandate that the FBI destroy records of all clean background checks within 24 hours. Under this decentralized system, we would protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens and block would-be gun traffickers from selling illegal weapons to criminals.
I have worked my entire life on behalf of public safety and the men and women who provide it every day across our state. I firmly believe that closing the background check loophole and preventing illegal gun trafficking will protect law enforcement officers on the front lines.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, more officers were killed by guns than by car accidents in 2011. For the sake of these public servants and victims of gun violence everywhere, we must press our elected officials to support effective solutions to help save American lives.
Robert M. Schwartz is executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, based in South Portland.