More than 60 percent of Mainers support a ballot initiative that would require background checks prior to private gun sales, according to a Portland Press Herald poll.
With six weeks left before Election Day, the campaign to close what critics contend is a fatal loophole in Maine’s gun laws appears to be maintaining strong support among voters, particularly in the state’s more populous regions and among women.
Roughly 61 percent of survey participants said they supported Question 3 – which would require background checks prior to private, person-to-person gun sales – while 33 percent opposed the ballot measure. Six percent of the 509 people polled for the survey remained undecided.
The poll was conducted via calls to both landline and cellular telephones between Sept. 15-20 by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. The background check poll had a margin of error of 4.3 percent.
Spearheaded by a local campaign largely financed by outside money, the Question 3 campaign would mandate background checks for all private sales, essentially applying the same standard now required of licensed gun shops and dealers. It also would require background checks before someone transferred or loaned a gun out.
The initiative contains exceptions for transactions between family members, to law enforcement or for some “temporary transfers” for hunting (but only when the gun owner is present) or when the transfer “is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.”
Sellers and buyers would have to go to a licensed firearms dealer to have the buyer’s name run through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Dealers can charge a “reasonable fee” to enter the data into the federal system.
Supporters contend the expansion is needed to close a loophole that allows people prohibited from owning guns – such as convicted felons or those with severe mental illnesses – to buy them without raising any red flags with law enforcement. Question 3’s supporters say the initiative also will reduce gun trafficking that helps fuel violence in cities in Massachusetts and other states with tighter gun laws.
Question 3’s opponents, meanwhile, argue the proposal is unnecessary in Maine, which ranks among the states with the lowest rates of gun violence. Additionally, opponents contend that requiring background checks for gun loans among friends will only cause headaches for law-abiding citizens without affecting criminals intent on skirting the law.
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, called the 61 percent “a very strong percentage” but somewhat lower than he would have expected given previous polling in Maine and nationally showing strong support for expanded background checks.
Brewer speculated that recent television ads by the National Rifle Association may be having an impact. But he projected that Question 3 will pass in November because expanding background checks has enjoyed strong support, including among many gun owners.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar decline in support as it gets closer to Election Day,” Brewer said. “That being said, I think there is a floor on (the decline). And I think that floor is well short of the referendum failing.”
The Press Herald poll showed that support for Question 3 was strongest among Democrats (87 percent), non-gun owners (84 percent) and women (72 percent). Nearly three-quarters of southern Maine residents polled on the issue said they planned to vote for the expansion, compared to just 49 percent in northern Maine.
A majority of likely voters in both congressional districts said they supported the initiative: 69 percent in the more liberal 1st District and 52 percent in Maine’s more rural, conservative 2nd District.
But just 41 percent of self-identified gun owners planned to vote for Question 3, lower than other state and national polls suggesting a majority of gun owners supported expanded background checks.
Donald Shaw, a 61-year-old Searsport resident, is among those who fear the proposal simply goes too far, especially when it comes to gun transfers.
Shaw said he and his family or friends often exchange guns for hunting. While Question 3 would allow gun owners to loan a gun to a non-relative, the two would have to hunt together or else receive a background check prior to the transfer. Shaw said the language of the legislation can be read in different ways, adding “I’m not going to take the risk of being charged” for a violation.
“I’m a former police officer, retired now, so I don’t want bad people to have guns,” Shaw said. “But I don’t believe this is going to change anything.”
Other gun owners, such as Steve Gerhartz, have a different take on the issue. Gerhartz said he believes passage of Question 3 would “enhance the depth” of the system and that it was “a reasonable thing to do” to put additional hurdles or barriers in front of those who shouldn’t possess guns.
“It closes some loopholes. This isn’t about confiscating anybody’s weapons,” said Gerhartz, an NRA member living in Kittery Point.
Likewise, Claire Hersom of Winthrop said that while no system is failsafe, she believed the initiative will help make Mainers safer. Hersom, 67, said she comes from a hunting family and grew up at a time when many of her friends brought their rifles to school so they could hunt afterward. But society has changed and she believes background checks make sense.
“It feels as if there has been almost this propaganda campaign to make people fear that their guns are going to be taken away when that is not the goal,” Hersom said. “The goal is simply for background checks.”
Maine has a thriving private-sales market for guns, often through classified ads and swap magazines such as Uncle Henry’s. Maine’s hunting and sporting heritage – and the deference for that heritage even among many Mainers who do not own guns – has played out in previous elections.
During the 2014 elections, Maine voters rejected a ballot initiative that sought to ban bear hunting while using bait, traps or dogs. Polling conducted for the Press Herald in June 2014 showed 48 percent of respondents supported the proposed ban with 44 percent opposed. That support steadily eroded as the election drew closer, however. In the end, 53 percent of voters opposed the bear referendum, which was heavily financed by the Humane Society of the United States.
This year, opponents are again accusing out-of-state interests of attempting to change Maine’s sporting traditions. That’s because Question 3 has been financed with more than $3 million from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control organization, Everytown for Gun Safety.
The NRA recently began airing television ads saying “Question 3 will not make Maine safer, it just puts the New York billionaires in charge of your life.” Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, which is leading the Question 3 campaign, has launched its own ads featuring hunters as well as former U.S. attorney Paula Silsby supporting the initiative.