AUGUSTA — It took two votes and some last-minute amendments Monday for the Maine Senate to pass a scaled-back version of what began as a strict gun-control proposal when introduced earlier this year.
J. Thomas Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, a gun-control advocacy group, called the latest version of the bill “a huge disappointment.”
The group is considering organizing a referendum election in 2014 to ask voters whether to mandate background checks before all gun sales, a provision that lawmakers took out of the bill before it passed in the Senate, he said.
A version of L.D. 1240, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, passed the Senate late Monday without a roll-call vote. It faces further action in the House and Senate.
Earlier Monday, another version of the bill failed in the Senate 19-16 after it had passed the House of Representatives by a slim, 78-66 vote on Thursday. The new version is expected to pass in the House.
Four Democratic senators joined with Republicans and voted against the earlier, stronger version of the bill: Majority Leader Seth Goodall of Richmond, Assistant Majority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash, John Patrick of Rumford and John Tuttle of Sanford.
The bill was a vehicle for ambitious gun-control reform when it was introduced earlier this year, but it was stripped of its most controversial elements, including mandatory background checks before all private gun sales and mandatory permitting before gun purchases.
Under the Senate version approved Monday, the bill would make it a Class D misdemeanor to intentionally or knowingly sell a gun to a person prohibited from having one, such as a convicted felon. It would also increase the fine for giving a false name to a dealer from $50 to $1,000.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which opposed the original version of the bill, said his group supports the version passed by the Senate on Monday.
But Franklin, called the Class D misdemeanor “a toothless violation” that places little responsibility on the seller.
“All a seller has to do to a buyer is say, ‘You’re not a convicted felon, are you?”‘ Franklin said. “If the buyer says, ‘Not at all,’ you can sell them the gun.”
The version of the bill that failed in the Senate on Monday would have created a first-time civil violation for selling a gun to a person prohibited from owning one, such as a convicted felon. A seller would be partially or fully protected from prosecution if he or she had done a background check on the buyer. The version that passed struck that.
Trahan said the provision struck would have been onerous on the seller, creating a crime even if the seller unknowingly sold a gun to a prohibited person.
“I don’t know how you’d police it other than having undercover police going around trying to buy guns from people,” Trahan said. “There were a lot of unintended consequences that I don’t think were thought out.”
The National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm blasted an email to members before the votes on Friday, urging them to contact legislators to oppose the bill.
The NRA email said the bill “attacks” private firearm transfers and “seeks to make drastic and unnecessary changes to current firearms laws that will unduly place law-abiding citizens at risk rather than addressing the true problems associated with purchases made under assumed identities.”
Under federal law, gun dealers now must do background checks on buyers, wherever they sell guns. Private sellers, such as those selling through Uncle Henry’s, a Maine publication, don’t have to do the checks.
Only three states, California, Connecticut and New York, require background checks before all gun sales, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But mandatory background checks have public support nationally and in Maine. In a poll of 403 Mainers conducted last month by Pan Atlantic SMS Group of Portland, nearly 90 percent of those surveyed supported background checks on buyers before they make private and gun-show purchases.
That, Franklin said, makes Monday’s actions by the Senate “a slap in the face to the Maine public, which very clearly supports mandatory background checks.”
If Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence does bring a citizens initiative in 2014 it will show whether or not Mainers prove their support at the ballot box.
“It’s what this forces us to do,” Franklin said of the Senate action Monday. “I think it’ll be a slam dunk.”
State House Bureau writer Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at: