The ballot question to require background checks on private gun sales was defeated after a hotly contested campaign that drew heavy spending from national groups.

Representatives with Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, the campaign behind Question 3, conceded the election late Wednesday morning as the gap held relatively steady at about 25,000 votes. Unofficial returns showed Mainers opposed the measure 52 percent to 48 percent, with 93 percent of precincts reporting.

“The votes have been counted. Unfortunately, things have not gone our way,” David Farmer, campaign manager for Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, said in a statement. “I know that a lot of people are disappointed, but we have done something here that can’t be undone. We have built a statewide movement. The election is over, but the work must continue.”

Earlier Wednesday, the National Rifle Association had declared victory and praised opponents for helping defeat “the gun control agenda of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.” Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety funded much of the Question 3 campaign, while the NRA contributed roughly $1 million to the opposition.

“This is a great night for the people of Maine,” Chris Cox, executive director for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. “With their freedoms in question and liberties at stake, they embraced the rights recognized in our constitution and said no to the poorly written, unenforceable mandates of the Question 3 ballot initiative.”

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said while there are ways the sides can work together to address gun violence, he doesn’t expect to see another background check expansion proposal any time soon.

“They made a run on gun control – Hillary (Clinton) ran on it – and they lost, and I think that sends a pretty clear message, particularly to the Democratic party,” said Trahan, who led the opposition to Question 3.

Statewide results for Question 3:

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SOURCE: Associated Press
INTERACTIVE: Christian MilNeil | @vigorousnorth

Question 3 aimed 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.

Under current law, federally licensed gun dealers must run the names of any would-be buyers through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check system before completing the sale. But private sellers in Maine are not required to run background checks on potential buyers.

Question 3 supporters contend that by requiring background checks on private sales – including those advertised online or publications such as Uncle Henry’s – Maine could keep guns from falling into the hands of “prohibited persons.” And that could reduce gun violence in Maine as well as in Massachusetts and other states with stronger gun laws.

But as with any gun control measure, Question 3 proved highly contentious.

Gun owners’ rights groups, organizations such as the SAM as well as sheriffs around the state opposed a proposal they argued would only burden law-abiding firearm owners with minimal impact on criminals. Those groups also seized on the required background checks on gun “transfers” – such as gun loans or gifting – to drum up opposition in Maine’s sizable hunting community.

While the proposal contains exemptions for transfers among family or for those hunting together, hunters loaning a gun to a non-relative would have to bring the firearm to a licensed dealer to run a background check. That process would need to be repeated to return the gun, and dealers could charge a “reasonable fee” for running the checks.

Bruce Ashmore, 58, a small-business owner from Bucksport, said he doesn’t oppose background checks for gun sales or permanent transfers but the proposed expansion would be onerous and expensive for temporary transfers. As a gun instructor, Ashmore routinely borrows guns to expose his students to an array of weapons. With the new checks, he would likely pay $400 to borrow and return guns for his classes.

“We just challenged a billionaire and we’re going toe to toe on a shoestring budget,” said Ashmore, who traveled the state in opposition of Question 3. “We’ve pushed this back so far that it’s hard to call. … We’re not fighting over guns, we’re fighting over our rights.”

Maine was one of two states – along with Nevada – where voters were deciding Tuesday on initiatives to expand background checks to private gun sales. Nevada residents narrowly approved their ballot measure, which largely mirrored the initiative on Maine’s ballot.

Everytown for Gun Safety has bankrolled much of the $5.3 million campaign operated by Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership. On the other side, the National Rifle Association contributed more than $1 million to the campaign to defeat Question 3.

Doug Hersom and Anna Serrano of Portland are typically a split household. He’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat. But both voted against expanded background checks in Question 3.

“Those that want access to guns won’t let a background check stop that,” Serrano, 36, said outside of Portland’s polling station.

“Criminals don’t care,” added Hersom, who is 41.

Question 3 volunteer Althea Sellers, 18, said she got involved with Mainers For Responsible Gun Ownership because thinks gun safety is an important issue, and because she wanted to do something to make her voice heard.

“I know I changed some minds, and that’s great,” Sellers, a senior at Waynflete School in Portland, said at the “Yes on 3” gathering. “It made me realize you can get involved with local politics and really make an impact.”