The debate over Question 3 is increasingly focused on language that would require background checks before Mainers could loan guns to each other, an issue that has allowed opponents to rally hunters and other gun owners against the ballot measure.

The gap between supporters and opponents of Question 3 on the Nov. 8 ballot appears to be narrowing with one week left until Election Day. While most major ballot initiatives in Maine see their support wane as the election nears, Question 3 witnessed a significant drop in support, from 61 percent to 52 percent, while the opposition increased by 10 points, from 33 percent to 43 percent, according to two Portland Press Herald polls conducted roughly five weeks apart.

Supporters downplayed the results and suggested the polling – conducted Oct. 20-25 – already was dated.

“We feel comfortable we are in a stronger position than that poll shows, although we are not going to complain about a nine-point lead,” said David Farmer, spokesman for Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, the campaign behind Question 3.

But a leading opponent suggested that the costly, high-profile campaign could be undone by the organizers’ decision to require background checks before gun loans or “transfers,” in addition to the private-sale background checks that are the primary focus of Question 3.

“In my opinion, this legislation only had to be one paragraph: ‘Do you want to require background checks for firearms sales on the private market.’ Period,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “It probably would have passed with 70 to 80 percent of the vote, and that approach would have been more genuine.”

Question 3 aims to close what supporters contend is a dangerous loophole in Maine gun laws that could allow convicted felons, domestic abusers and individuals with mental illness to acquire guns. That is because – unlike purchases made from federally licensed gun dealers – private transactions in Maine do not require the would-be buyer’s name to be run through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check system.

THE OUT-OF-STATERS ARGUMENT

But Question 3 also would require people who want to loan or gift a gun to a non-relative to bring the firearm to a licensed dealer in order to run a background check on the recipient. The dealer can charge a “reasonable fee” and, under the language of the law, the process would need to be repeated when the gun is transferred back.

The proposal exempts transactions between family members, for law enforcement or when a gun is needed to protect someone from imminent harm or death. Loans for hunting or sport shooting also would be exempt, but only if the lender and recipient hunt or shoot together.

The sportsman’s alliance and Gun Owners of Maine have hammered the loaner gun issue in mailers and other communications. And the National Rifle Association – which has funneled roughly $1 million into the campaign so far – featured the transfers issue in its first television ad.

Trahan and other opponents are banking on the same dynamics that sank a 2014 referendum to ban bear baiting and trapping, when sportsmen and many rural Mainers strongly opposed the initiative. And just as they successfully portrayed the bear referendum as being spearheaded by out-of-state interests – in that case, the Humane Society of the United States – the NRA and Trahan’s colleagues are accusing Question 3 supporters of doing the bidding of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Everytown for Gun Safety, which is Bloomberg’s gun control organization, has pumped more than $4 million into the Maine campaign.

“Our point from the beginning is Bloomberg and his (group) could have written a law to address that issue (of private sales) that would have closed the loophole and addressed the problem with minimal impact on law-abiding gun owners,” Trahan said. “This law is drastically overwritten.”

Farmer, the spokesman for Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, accused opponents of grossly exaggerating the proposal’s impacts on hunters as a scare tactic in the final weeks of the campaign. But Farmer also cited examples of murders in other states – many of them incidents of domestic violence – committed by individuals who borrowed a gun from someone else. He also cited a closer-to-home case in which a Maine man was interviewed by federal law enforcement after a gun he traded away turned up at a crime scene.

“That is exactly why transfers are included in this,” Farmer said. “When you have so many guns available … on the private market, if you don’t include transfers, you leave a gaping hole that allows guns to fall into the wrong hands without a background check.”

In response to the rhetoric over gun transfers, Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership has launched two television ads during the past month featuring hunters who support Question 3, and also posted an online video rebutting some claims made by Gov. Paul LePage, who opposes the ballot measure.

Mark Mayone of South Portland is one hunter who plans to vote against the bill, largely because of the mandatory background checks on transfers. And Mayone cited a situation from less than two weeks ago as an example of why he opposes the proposal.

The son of a friend had wanted to try hunting with a larger-caliber shotgun than he had previously used, so Mayone said he borrowed a 20-gauge from a fellow gun club member before the group headed to the North Woods sporting camp. Upon trying the 20-gauge, however, the young man decided he preferred the smaller caliber gun after all. Fortunately, Mayone said, he had brought a backup gun for just that situation. But had Question 3’s requirement been in effect, the boy would have been able to hunt only if Mayone had gone out with the boy and his father.

“We were 85 miles northwest of Millinocket and there are no towns up there,” Mayone said. “This kid’s weekend would have been ruined.”

VERY CLOSE VOTE PREDICTED

Question 3 supporters often counter that the temporary inconvenience of background checks is dramatically outweighed by the prospect of saving lives by prohibiting criminals from acquiring guns.

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, was surprised that the Yes on 3 campaign had not done more to respond to the discussion over hunting until recently. Melcher said opponents could be pursuing a strategy similar to what they did with the bear referendum in 2014, but he said Question 3 appears to enjoy broader support headed into Election Day.

That said, Melcher noted that major ballot initiatives often lose support as the election approaches, and Question 3 is no exception. The big question, he said, could be whether backers of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump – whose conservative supporters might be more likely to oppose Question 3 – will turn out in large numbers.

“I think it is going to be dead even” headed into Election Day, Melcher said. “My hunch is it is going to fail narrowly, but I believe it is going to be close.”

Responding to the claims of opponents, Farmer said Colorado and Washington state have both put in place similar background check laws in recent years with little impact on the sporting community. While Farmer said supporters never felt Question 3 would be a runaway campaign, he repeated that they are in a “strong position” headed into the election.

“I remain confident that voters in Maine will pass this common-sense reform,” he said.