June 23, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Conscience guides an NRA stalwart

At first glance, it's the latest in a long line of National Rifle Association legislative alerts. But from where state Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, sits, it's a bull's-eye affixed squarely to his political future.

"Remarkably, after decades of steadfast Second Amendment support, state Senator John Tuttle changed his position and voted in favor of LD 1240," fumed the NRA, underlining the passage to emphasize its ire. "Because Senator Tuttle changed his vote and sided with the anti-gun faction, LD 1240 passed in the state Senate by an 18-17 margin."

A traitor to his cause?

Try a profile in courage.

"Historically, I've been a hunter, I've always believed in Second Amendment rights," Tuttle said in an interview from his home last week. "But this bill -- I agonized over it from the time it was put in. I couldn't sleep the night before the vote."

Months ago, while most Americans still reeled from the slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., gun control advocates countrywide vowed that this time would be different.

This time, they promised, meaningful laws would be passed to bring some sanity to a gun culture that bristles at the mere mention of keeping weapons out of the wrong hands.

L.D. 1240, introduced by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, was Maine's best hope for such reform.

Initially, the bill raised the minimum age for obtaining a concealed handgun permit from 18 to 21, required private gun sellers to have background checks performed on their buyers (unless they are family members), broadened the prohibition of gun sales to people with mental illness to include those admitted to a psychiatric hospital on an emergency basis, and imposed several other commonsense requirements aimed at enhancing gun safety and accountability.

Enter the NRA.

By the time the bill, already voted down once by the Senate, came up for reconsideration on Wednesday, it had all but evaporated.

Still, L.D. 1240 at least established a study group to examine the mental health components, beefed up the fine for giving a fake name to a firearms dealer and made it a civil violation to sell a gun to a person prohibited from owning one -- with the stipulation that having a background check performed on the buyer is an "affirmative defense" to prosecution for the civil violation.

In other words, the background check becomes an insurance policy of sorts for the seller: If you do one and a bad guy slips through the cracks, it's not on you. If you skip the background check and the bad guy gets caught with the gun you sold him, you've got some explaining to do.

Tuttle, boasting a string of "A" ratings from the NRA dating all the way back to the 1990s, opposed L.D. 1240 at the outset because, truth be told, he knew backing it would be political suicide in his rural corner of northwestern York County. When the bill went down to defeat in the Senate by a 19-16 margin on Monday, in fact, he was among those who voted against it.

But even then, Tuttle realized the measure would be back -- Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, voted against it only so he could force the reconsideration vote on the last day of the session.

Meaning Tuttle, whose gut told him there was nothing wrong (and a lot right) with even this watered-down version of L.D. 1240, still had a decision to make.

Should he stick to his guns and vote against L.D. 1240 not because he honestly opposed it, but because he knew that "A" rating from the NRA would come in handy when he runs for re-election next year?

Or should he listen to whatever was keeping him awake all Tuesday night? Also known as his conscience.

"My wife and I talked about it and she told me she felt quite strongly that while I had been a lifetime supporter of the Second Amendment, every now and then you have to do the right thing," Tuttle said.

Like any rational person, Tuttle knew the legislation was not, as its opponents reflexively claimed, yet another "attack" on the Second Amendment. Rather, he concluded, L.D. 1240 simply took a few much-needed steps toward keeping firearms away from those relatively few people who have no business owning one.

And so just before the final roll call on Wednesday, when fellow Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick (a co-sponsor of the bill), looked over with question marks in his eyes, Tuttle took a deep breath and quietly gave Gerzofsky a thumbs-up.

And moments later, thanks to Tuttle's vote, the bill passed.

A flip-flop? Some on Tuttle's home answering machine and Facebook page certainly think so.

But make no mistake about it -- this is not one of those malodorous deals where a lawmaker votes his conscience only, in the name of political expediency, to turn around and violate it.

This is actually the opposite -- a lawmaker who toes the NRA line year after year until one day, his conscience tells him he no longer can.

End of story? If only.

L.D. 1240, which also squeaked past the House on a 78-71 final vote, now faces an almost-certain veto by Gov. Paul LePage. The chances of either legislative chamber mounting the two-thirds majority needed to override that veto are, alas, somewhere between nil and "don't even try."

Why, then, did Tuttle risk re-election next year over a piece of legislation that was doomed from the start?

"Every now and then you have an issue that comes along and really tugs at you," Tuttle said. "I'm hoping my constituents will understand that."

And if they don't? If the NRA keeps Tuttle in its crosshairs until he's replaced by someone who knows how to keep his head down, will it all have been worth it?

"I think so," replied Tuttle. "Because if you really can't represent yourself and how you feel, you probably shouldn't be doing this job."

So go ahead, NRA, call out your political storm troopers and drop that man from an "A" to an "F."

To an ever-growing number of Mainers, it stands for "fearless."

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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