AUGUSTA – Maine Senate President Justin Alfond grew up in rural Dexter, where he remembers having friends who drove to high school with hunting guns on racks in their trucks.
In November, Alfond, who represents part of Portland, and fellow Democrats took the Maine Legislature back from Republicans after campaigning mostly against Gov. Paul LePage. Gun control wasn’t especially on their radar.
But in December, after gunman Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 students and six educators, a national gun control debate ensued, leading Connecticut and other states to pass sweeping gun control measures.
Alfond said he felt a mandate to submit similar legislation involving “reasonable restrictions,” adding in an interview last week that lawmakers had to have that “thorough conversation.”
But there was little appetite for restriction when it came time to vote in the Legislature this year.
This past session, Maine lawmakers submitted 31 gun-related bills. The last Legislature to submit that many bills on guns took office 10 years ago. That group submitted 32 in two years.
The state’s gun laws remain essentially the same, though. Alfond’s bill to limit clips to 10 rounds, an ambitious proposal, was rejected unanimously by a legislative committee.
Rural Democrats, including the assistant leaders in the House and Senate, Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan and Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, opposed it, saying they didn’t know what violence it would prevent. They owned guns that would have been affected by the bill.
Other bills got further, such as one to mandate background checks before private and gun-show firearm sales, but didn’t make it into law. Motivated gun-rights supporters came to the State House in droves to oppose them.
“Given what happened in Connecticut, we thought these bills had a better chance to pass than in the past,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a pro-gun rights group. “Our organization is very happy with how the session went.”
Meanwhile, gun control advocates say public opinion is on their side in Maine and elsewhere, and they’ll win out in the end.
To experts, it’s not so simple. Especially in rural areas, Maine has a deep-rooted sporting culture. Violence isn’t high, so gun control isn’t seen by many as being necessary.
That affects legislators’ views and votes, said Ronald Schmidt, a University of Southern Maine political science professor.
“The conventional wisdom is that there are Maine voters that would be very opposed to that, and there aren’t a lot of people that would be very in favor of it,” he said, referring to gun control legislation. “Passing something with a lukewarm majority isn’t worth (upsetting) a vocal minority.”
LOW-VIOLENCE STATES SHUN CONTROLS
In many ways, Maine’s gun culture is similar to that of nearby New England states, especially Vermont. Both are seen by national observers as liberal states, but both have relaxed gun laws.
They’re both rural, and gun violence isn’t seen as a large problem. Among states, Maine had the 10th-fewest firearms deaths per capita in 2010, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Vermont had the 22nd fewest.
Yet the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, a gun control group, faulted the two states in a 2011 state-by-state ranking of gun laws’ strengths, putting them among 31 states identified as having “few or no” gun laws.
A 2011 study by USM’s Muskie School of Public Service found that nearly 47 percent of Maine survey respondents had firearms at home. A 2001 survey cited by a University of Vermont paper found that 42 percent of Vermonters said they owned guns.
And like Maine, Vermont also saw stagnant gun control efforts this year. There, Democratic state Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, from a Burlington suburb, introduced a bill that would ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds.
The bill hasn’t gone through the committee process yet, and she said it has some support. But she has already gotten a lot of negative emails about it from “people who are committed to making sure I don’t return to office.”
Alfond said his email inbox exploded with the same types of emails. Some said he wants to “take guns away from people.” He denies that, flashing an incredulous smile.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, has given some hints as to why Waite-Simpson is facing pressure there.
“The fact is, Vermonters don’t own weapons to kill and maim other human beings,” Shumlin told The Associated Press in May. “They own weapons to manage our natural resources and to carry on hunting traditions that are the glue to our family units and the glue to our communities.”
But Waite-Simpson has seen violence in her district.
In 2006, 26-year-old Christopher Williams, hours after breaking up with his girlfriend, shot and killed her mother at her home. Then he went to Essex Elementary School, where he killed a co-worker of his ex-girlfriend and shot himself in the head, but survived.
“When people say this stuff hasn’t happened in Vermont, they’re wrong,” Waite-Simpson said.
Maine state Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a lawyer and former Cumberland County sheriff who sponsored background-check legislation this session, also said the low-violence argument doesn’t hold up.
“The problem with those arguments is it doesn’t take into account those victimized by gun violence,” he said. “For them, it’s enough.”
STRENGTH OF GUN-RIGHTS ADVOCATES
Gun control supporters cite polling at the national and state levels that indicated about 90 percent of Americans support mandatory background checks before gun sales.
But at a public hearing in April on L.D. 1240, a bill sponsored by Dion that would originally have mandated background checks before virtually all sales, more opponents than proponents showed up.
His bill got watered down before narrowly passing the Legislature. It was amended to encourage background checks by instituting penalties if private sellers were found to have sold guns to people prohibited from having them, such as convicted felons.
Dion likened it to a speed limit: “You can violate it and many times you’ll be OK.” Still, LePage vetoed it.
In the wake of defeat, J. Thomas Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, has said that in 2014, his group is considering a citizens initiative to put mandatory background checks up for a vote.
Given polling, he has said the referendum would be “a slam dunk” for his side. But it wasn’t hard to see which side of Maine’s gun debate was more vocal and victorious in 2013. It wasn’t Franklin’s.
“There is a well-recognized difference between the single-issue gun advocates and the more diffuse gun-safety supporters,” he conceded. “It does not translate well to phone calls and one-on-one communication with legislators.”
One bill during the session especially demonstrated the strength of gun rights advocates.
When Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, introduced L.D. 345, a bill to make identifying information on concealed-handgun permits confidential, it wasn’t expected to create controversy.
But a public-access request by the Bangor Daily News for all permit information in the state was made public on Valentine’s Day. The gun-rights base jumped into action.
The newspaper was inundated with complaints via social media. Activists said its action mirrored a December 2012 move by the Journal News, a New York newspaper that published an interactive map of permit holders in its coverage area.
The Bangor paper caved, pulling its request the next day. The Legislature swiftly passed emergency legislation to make the information confidential. After a public hearing at which supporters outnumbered opponents eight to one, a permanent bill passed easily.
To Trahan, all that shows his side’s strength: the grassroots, where Franklin and his ilk aren’t trusted.
“Their agenda is clear: They don’t like firearms,” Trahan said of Franklin’s group. “They want to take guns away from people.”
Franklin says background checks only enforce existing law, and his group mirrors popular opinion.
“There’s a very great difference between taking time off from work to testify in Augusta and checking a box on a ballot,” Franklin said. “Don’t think that Trahan doesn’t know that.”
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at: [email protected] Twitter: @mikeshepherdme
Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Christopher Walker, the perpetrator of a 2006 fatal Vermont school shooting, had shot and killed himself. Walker survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head and as convicted of murder in 2008.