PORTLAND – Once again, Maine has an opportunity to live up to its motto, “Dirigo,” by being a national leader.
The U.S. Senate spurned the will of the people last week when it failed to pass a bill requiring universal background checks on gun sales.
Polls show overwhelming support for the measure. Yet a concerted lobbying effort by gun rights activists, led by the National Rifle Association, once again cowed Congress from taking meaningful action on gun control.
The good news is that Maine legislators still have time to act.
L.D. 1240, sponsored by Portland Rep. Mark Dion, would require background checks on all gun sales in Maine except those between family members.
The proposal also would increase the penalties for giving a false name when buying a gun; prohibit people who have been admitted to a psychiatric hospital on an emergency basis from owning a gun, and require all gun buyers to complete a firearms safety course.
I took eight hours off work April 8 in order to have my three-minute say at the public hearing on L.D. 1240. I spoke as one of the 90 percent of Mainers who want universal background checks. That is the figure from the latest state poll, conducted a month ago.
There were so many people at the State House for “gun bill day” that we filled the hearing room and three waiting rooms. As I waited for my chance to testify, I had plenty of time to take stock of who else was there.
I’ve followed the public debate over Maine’s gun laws for more than 25 years — first as a newspaper reporter, then as a documentary filmmaker and a citizen. Although gun-rights activists represent the minority view, they are much more motivated than most citizens to speak out on the issue, and much more likely to show up at legislative hearings.
But this time was different. Lots of people testified in support of universal background checks and other measures to strengthen Maine gun laws. There were clergypeople, law enforcement officials, physicians. And there were people like me who have been touched by gun violence.
While in college, I was visiting a friend one evening when his roommate walked in with a robber holding a gun at his back. The gunman yelled at us not to look at him and made us go into another room one by one to hand over our wallets.
Nearly 40 years later, it remains the most terrifying experience of my life. And it underscores that the price we pay for gun violence goes far beyond those who are killed or shot. It affects anyone who has ever been threatened with a firearm.
The NRA and its local partner, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, have been very effective at squelching any attempt to strengthen Maine’s gun laws. But it wouldn’t take much to change that.
All it takes is you and your neighbors contacting your legislators and telling them that you want them to vote “yes” on universal background checks. You can find how to reach them at http://www.maine.gov/portal/government/edemocracy/ lookup_voter_info.
Time is of the essence. The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hold a work session on L.D. 1240 on Monday. So if you care about this issue, even a little, don’t wait.
Certainly, the best solution would be a federal law requiring background checks on all gun sales in all states. But there is still value in Maine taking action.
Many Northeastern states either have tightened their gun laws or are in the process of doing so. Criminals come to Maine to buy guns that they cannot legally acquire in states such as New York or Massachusetts. Tightening our laws will prevent that from happening.
A Maine law would have another effect: It would show the country that a rural state with a strong hunting tradition wants to keep its citizens safe by ensuring that only those who pass background checks can purchase a firearm. Just as we have been a leader on gay marriage, so we can be on universal background checks.
Shoshana Hoose of Portland co-produced the award-winning 2007 documentary film “There Ought to Be A Law,” which follows a Lewiston woman’s effort to win passage of a bill tightening Maine’s gun laws.