The campaign to require background checks on private gun sales won broad support in southern, coastal Maine but faltered throughout rural and interior areas despite outspending opponents more than 4 to 1.

In many ways, the outcome of the Question 3 campaign mirrored the results and the political dynamics of the failed 2014 ballot initiative over bear baiting and trapping. Opponents were able to tap into Maine’s sizable sporting community and skepticism toward out-of-state interest groups to defeat an issue that supporters insisted was aimed at criminals – not hunters – and is already in effect in more than a dozen states.

“Maine has a long history of gun ownership, gun usage and a strong hunting tradition, and that matters,” said Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine at Orono. “Any time that seems to be under attack, it is easy to mobilize that sentiment.”

Question 3 sought to close a loophole in Maine law that could allow criminals, domestic abusers or individuals with mental illness to purchase guns from private sellers without a background check. But opponents seized on the fact that Question 3 would also require background checks before Mainers could loan or trade guns to each another, practices that are relatively common among hunters and sport shooters.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, the “Yes on 3” campaign was trailing 48 percent to 52 percent, according to unofficial results. The campaign conceded late Wednesday morning after organizers determined they would be unable to close a roughly 25,000-vote gap.

Question 3 played well in the majority of Maine’s larger towns and cities, especially those along the southern coast and in the midcoast. More than 78 percent of Portland voters, for instance, voted for Question 3. Support also topped 70 percent in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Camden and exceeded 60 percent in towns such as Biddeford, Saco and Brunswick.

Statewide results for Question 3:

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SOURCE: Associated Press
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Even slightly off the coast, however, support for the ballot initiative fell sharply.

The measure failed in communities throughout western, central, northern and Down East Maine, with the exception of isolated pockets such as the Bangor/Orono area and on Mount Desert Island. And just as support topped 70 percent in some southern coastal towns, opposition neared or exceeded 70 percent in Greenville, Jackman, Grand Lake Stream and other interior towns where hunting is a major part of the local culture and economy.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and its allies hit the transfer issue hard with hunters, with apparent success. SAM’s executive director, David Trahan, believes the decision by the Question 3 campaign to go beyond private sales took a toll.

“Had this been written differently, I think the outcome might have been different,” Trahan said.

A veteran of Maine’s ballot initiative scene, Trahan was a key player in the campaign to rally sportsmen and rural Mainers against the 2014 bear hunting, baiting and hounding referendum in 2014 spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States. That initiative failed 47 percent to 53 percent – just 1 percentage point different from the unofficial outcome of Tuesday’s vote on Question 3.

“I think what that says is sportsmen and gun owners are a huge voting block: We can swing elections and we can swing referendum campaigns,” said Trahan, a former state senator from Waldoboro.

Todd Tolhurste, left, president of Gun Owners of Maine, David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, Tammy Walter, president of the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club in Cape Elizabeth and Mark Mayone, past president of the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club, examine voting results on Question 3 in Augusta on Tuesday. Opponents of the ballot measure tapped into Maine’s sizable sporting community to defeat it.

Todd Tolhurste, left, president of Gun Owners of Maine, David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Tammy Walter, president of the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club in Cape Elizabeth and Mark Mayone, past president of the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club, examine voting results on Question 3 in Augusta on Tuesday. Opponents of the ballot measure tapped into Maine’s sizable sporting community to defeat it. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Question 3 supporters see things somewhat differently and defended the inclusion of language requiring background checks on gun transfers.

David Farmer, campaign manager for Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, said he believes that Question 3 simply “got caught” in the unprecedented dynamics that led to Donald Trump’s election as president while attempting to take on the powerful gun lobby.

“The transfers were used to confuse voters,” Farmer said. “If it hadn’t been transfers, they would have found another issue. I think what impacted it more was the dynamics of the (national) race. And the gun lobby has sworn to oppose any changes to gun laws, whether at the congressional level or in the states.”

Both sides received hefty financial support from national groups involved in the gun debate.

Much of Question 3’s roughly $5 million campaign was bankrolled by Everytown for Gun Safety, the organization started by vocal gun-control advocate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Opponents seized on Bloomberg’s involvement, accusing his organization of attempting to import “big-city” gun control laws to a state with one of the lowest gun violence rates in the nation. Supporters countered that guns sold on Maine’s unregulated private market help fuel gun violence in states like New York and Massachusetts, which have tougher gun laws.

Opponents, meanwhile, received more than $1.1 million from the powerful National Rifle Association. The head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, Chris Cox, praised Maine voters on Wednesday for “rejecting the gun control agenda of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and securing the rights of every law-abiding Mainer.”

UMaine’s Brewer said opponents were successful in playing up Bloomberg’s financial ties to the campaign even as they ignored the NRA’s support for their side. Brewer also agreed that inclusion of the “transfers” language provided ammunition to opponents.

“I think a lot of people would have been supportive of a bill that only dealt with (private sales),” Brewer said. “But when you open the possibility that the law is going to extend to people who want to go hunting or want to lend a gun to a friend, that raised red flags with people.”

Bill Harwood with the Maine Gun Safety Coalition said including loans in the ballot initiative was consistent with the goal of closing a loophole that allows prohibited persons to acquire guns without a background check, whether through purchases, loans or trades.

Like Farmer, Harwood said he was disappointed with the outcome but pleased that Question 3 had raised awareness of – and conversation about – the background check loophole. And that could help address the issue down the road, he said.

“We gave it a heck of a fight and the issue isn’t going away,” Harwood said.

Trahan said there are opportunities for bipartisan, collaborative work to address the issue of guns falling into the wrong hands. For instance, Trahan said he would like to see the federal government aggressively pursue and prosecute individuals who lie on background check forms or act as “straw purchasers” to illegally buy firearms for others. But Trahan is not interested in another debate over background checks.

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