AUGUSTA – Amid the ongoing national debate over the effectiveness of gun control in preventing gun violence, the state Senate voted 19-16 Thursday to reject a bill to require background checks for all firearms buyers at gun shows.
L.D. 267 is designed to stop private sales of guns unless buyers are screened for past criminal activity. Its supporters echoed calls from prominent national Democrats, including President Obama, who say that closing the “gun show loophole” is one of several needed steps to keep guns away from violent offenders.
Licensed dealers in Maine already are required to run background checks on buyers at gun shows, but private sellers are not.
The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, would require private sellers at gun shows to request background checks. Failure to do so could result in a civil penalty of $2,500 for the first violation and $5,000 for subsequent violations.
Gerzofsky said the bill is aimed at weeding out the small portion of buyers who go to gun shows looking for private sellers who don’t have to do background checks.
“Those are the people that I think should go through background checks: the ones that don’t think they can pass,” he said.
Opponents of the bill said it would do little to prevent gun violence.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said much of the testimony at a public hearing in April over-dramatized problems with gun show sales.
“To listen to some of the testimony, one would think the gun show loophole is as big as the Holland Tunnel, when in reality, it isn’t as big as the eye of a needle,” he said. “It is a very, very, very small problem.”
That argument, along with the influence of the National Rifle Association, has persuaded Maine lawmakers to reject previous efforts to close the loophole.
Recent research shows that gun shows account for a small percentage of private sales, and that enforcement of laws aimed at closing the loophole in other states is lax.
Nonetheless, lawmakers in at least eight other states have considered similar measures this year in response to December’s elementary school shootings in Newton, Conn. Those efforts are producing mixed results, as is a parallel effort in Congress.
According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, six states require background checks on all firearm sales at gun shows: California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island. Three others, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania, require background checks on all handgun sales at gun shows.
Eight others — Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Nebraska and North Carolina — require buyers to get permits and background checks before buying handguns.
Thirty-three states, including Maine, have either rejected gun show loophole legislation or never considered it.
The Maine bill faced an uphill climb from the start.
The NRA’s political action committee has spent more than $137,200 on Maine legislative elections since 2002. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which bills itself as a hunting advocacy group, has spent more than $175,000.
Richard Dyke, who once owned Bushmaster Firearms in Windham, has spent more than $68,000 on Maine elections and legislative candidates.
By contrast, the political arm of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence has spent $9,228 since 2002.
Lobbying reports for the current legislative session are not yet complete.
From 2002 to 2012, Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence spent more on lobbying state lawmakers than the NRA, $43,799 to $29,125. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine spent $110,039 over the same period.
The Sunlight Foundation has reported that the NRA spent more than 4,100 times as much on last year’s federal elections as the nation’s leading gun control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, $24.3 million to $5,816.
And the NRA has spent 73 times as much as the Brady Campaign lobbying the 112th Congress.
In Maine, L.D. 267 emerged from the Criminal Justice Committee on a mostly party-line vote. Several Democrats voted against it on Thursday, a signal that the bill is unlikely to pass.
Other gun control bills, including one sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, that would have limited the size of ammunition clips have been rejected in this session.
L.D. 1240, a comprehensive bill to require background checks on all gun purchases and prohibit sales to people who have been institutionalized for mental health issues, has not yet been voted out of the Criminal Justice Committee.
Gun rights advocates say the loophole proposal adds unnecessary steps to buying a firearm, especially since most gun dealers are doing checks at gun shows.
Proponents of the bill cite a 15-year-old investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives that found gun shows were responsible for 26,000 illegally sold guns. The Northeast was responsible for 8 percent of those gun sales.
The loophole on private gun show sales surfaced after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. The shooters had bought their firearms at gun shows.
The issue has been perennial in Congress, where lawmakers have spurned laws to close the loophole despite persistent pressure from gun control advocates.
The ATF, which monitors gun shows to track sales, told the Arizona Republic in 2007 that it lacked resources to patrol adequately for illegal activity.
Each of the bureau’s 25 field offices is required to monitor at least six gun shows every year. A report this year by the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general said 18 of the field offices, or 72 percent, met the goal in fiscal year 2011.
The field offices in Boston — the division that oversees Maine — New York and Newark, N.J., were among those that didn’t meet the inspection quota.
The Maine Senate also voted 20-15 Thursday against repealing a two-year-old law that allows concealed-handgun permit holders to leave their guns in their vehicles at work even if their employers prohibit it.
The bill, backed by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, touched off a debate between business groups and gun-rights advocates. Businesses argued that employers should have the right to determine what happens on their property. Opponents said that employees’ vehicles are private property and that repealing the law would effectively deny workers the right to defend themselves.
L.D. 265 was sponsored by Gerzofsky. He said the law passed in 2011 fixed a problem that “didn’t exist.”
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she had received complaints from employers about the law and urged its repeal.
The 2011 bill was sponsored by Rep. Richard Cebra, who now is chairman of the Maine Republican Party, and supported by the NRA. Only 13 Democratic legislators voted to enact the law, while 16 Republicans broke ranks to oppose it.
On Thursday, a handful of Democrats voted with Republicans to help defeat the repeal effort.
The bill requires additional votes in the House and Senate.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: