The Maine Legislature this week will finally take up gun control, one of the most contentious issues of the session.
There will be public hearings all week, beginning Monday, on more than two dozen bills related to guns.
Gun control proponents are hoping that public outrage over the shooting of 20 children and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last December will translate into political momentum.
“The Newtown shooting was a game changer,” said Bill Harwood, founder of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence.
Although the Legislature historically has been a hostile place for even modest gun control measures, Harwood points to recent polls that indicate the public favors some changes.
In an independent poll released last week by Pan Atlantic SMS Group, nearly 90 percent of the registered Maine voters surveyed said they favor background checks for all gun purchases, and 65.5 percent favored a ban on ammunition clips that hold 10 or more bullets.
A poll conducted in January for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that although Mainers are more likely to own guns than most Americans, they’re also more supportive of increasing restrictions, such as banning semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines.
Public support for gun control in Maine may be broad, but don’t expect the Legislature to approve the kind of sweeping gun control measures that have passed in recent months in more urban states, such as Connecticut and New York, say political observers.
Gun rights activists have been successful in Maine because they are more passionate, better organized and better informed about how to influence the political processes, said Patrick Murphy, president of Pan Atlantic SMS Group.
“Legislators are very wary of any of these gun control measures because they worry about being put out of office,” he said.
In Maine, a lawmaker’s stance on gun control is often a determining factor for how gun rights supporters vote in local races, said Douglas Hodgkin, a retired political science professor from Bates College in Lewiston.
In contrast, gun control supporters won’t punish lawmakers for voting the wrong way on the issue because other issues are more important to them, he said.
Gun rights activists will turn out in large numbers at the public hearings this week and will probably outnumber gun control supporters, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He said many sportsmen worry that the proposals go too far.
“Most people support common-sense regulations,” he said. “But some of the (proposed) laws come pretty close to stamping out individual freedoms.”
Lawmakers are already feeling the pressure from gun rights activists.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he has been inundated with emails in support of L.D. 660. Sponsored by Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, the “constitutional carry” bill would allow any Maine gun owner to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
The public hearing for that bill is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in Augusta before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
The committee will be holding hearings on gun control bills on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence is focusing its attention on passing two bills, L.D. 997, sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and L.D. 1240, sponsored by Dion. The committee will hold public hearings on these bills at 10 a.m. Monday.
Alfond’s bill would ban magazines that carry more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
Dion’s bill is a comprehensive package that would allow police to take away guns from people who have been admitted to a psychiatric hospital on an emergency basis, increase the minimum age to obtain a concealed handgun permit from 18 to 21, require background checks for all gun sales except between family members, and require gun buyers to show evidence they have completed a firearm safety course.
The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will hold public hearings Thursday on two bills related to improving school security procedures and safety standards for school construction.
The Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee will hold a public hearing at 1 p.m. Monday on L.D. 1122, a bill sponsored by Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland, that would allow cities and towns to prohibit guns in municipal offices and places of assembly.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: