WASHINGTON – The high-profile gun control compromise brokered this week in the U.S. Senate would require background checks on anyone buying a gun through Uncle Henry’s or other publications, closing a perceived loophole often blamed for fueling gun crimes in New England.
Much of the initial media attention on the tentative deal focused on the fact that, for the first time, background checks will be required for any private, person-to-person gun sales taking place at gun shows or through Internet postings. But the text of the amendment released late Thursday showed that background checks would be mandatory for private sales promoted in print as well.
If enacted, that would be a major shift in Maine, where untold numbers of guns change hands privately each year without background checks after being listed in newspaper classifieds or in popular “swap” magazines, such as Uncle Henry’s.
The Augusta-based swap magazine and website has become one of Maine’s most popular venues for private gun sales, offering more than 12 pages of guns and firearms accessories in its most recent edition. But guns sold in Uncle Henry’s as well as through other classified postings have occasionally ended up in criminals’ hands because Maine law does not require background checks on private sales,
Kevin Webb, publisher of Uncle Henry’s, declined to comment on the political debate over gun control but said he is watching the discussion closely. Webb said Uncle Henry’s complies with existing law — and encourages its customers to do the same — and will comply with whatever emerges from Congress, if anything does.
“I’m anxious to see this issue come to rest in one shape or form,” Webb said.
The Senate is expected to begin debate next week on the proposal to significantly expand federal background checks for gun sales. The compromise struck by two gun-friendly senators helped break a Republican filibuster, although the fate of the deal and all other gun control measures pending with Congress remains unclear.
The compromise would require private sellers who advertise in any medium or sell at a gun show to have a licensed dealer conduct a background check of any potential buyer. Failure to comply would be a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. Transfers between family members down to first cousins are exempt.
“It is far from perfect but it is a major step in the right direction,” said Tom Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, which is pushing for a broader background check requirement on nearly all private sales.
Licensed dealers have been obligated to run names through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, since 1998. Nearly 2 million people have been denied guns by NICS because of criminal records, mental illness or other prohibitions.
But there is no such federal requirement for private sales. Dozens of gun dealers in Maine offer to run background checks for private sellers, normally for a fee of $20 or $25.
But gun dealers around the state told the Portland Press Herald earlier this year that private sellers rarely take them up on the offer, even after the public-private coalition Project Safe Neighborhoods published a list of willing dealers.
Police and some prosecutors have long complained that people who could never purchase a gun from a licensed dealer are able to easily obtain guns through Maine’s thriving private marketplace. And some of those guns later turn up at crime scenes.
Between 2006 and 2011, 8.3 percent of guns recovered in Massachusetts and successfully traced by law enforcement originated in Maine, according to an analysis of statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF.
Maine and New Hampshire consistently vie as the top source of out-of-state guns recovered in Massachusetts.
The Senate compromise still disappoints both gun control advocates — who wanted a “universal background check” — and gun owners’ rights groups skeptical of any expansion of federal law.
“It does not require universal background checks for all private sales and, therefore, criminals will be able to easily circumvent this law,” said John Rosenthal, founder of the Massachusetts-based group Stop Handgun Violence and a vocal critic of Maine’s looser gun laws.
“It will not effectively deter criminals from buying guns.”
National gun owners’ rights groups offered varying reactions this week.
“Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools,” the National Rifle Association said in a statement. “While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and (New York City) Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg’s ‘universal’ background check agenda is a positive development, we have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows.”
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