April 9, 2013

Self-defense, public safety argued during gun hearings

- BY MICHAEL SHEPHERD

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State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - A legislative committee heard testimony from morning to night Monday on some of the 20-plus gun bills that will have public hearings in the Legislature this week.

Gun control proposals drew hundreds of gun rights advocates to testify in opposition.

Among the proposals is a bill sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, that would limit gun magazines to 10 rounds, a key goal of President Obama in the federal gun control debate.

Other proposals heard Monday would:

n Require firearm dealers to prove completion of a firearms safety course.

n Require any gun buyer to show a current hunting license or concealed-handgun permit.

n Mandate background checks before private and gun show sales.

n Raise the minimum age to get a concealed-handgun permit from 18 to 21.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee also heard a proposal that would outlaw enforcement of federal gun control measures in Maine.

Alfond's bill, which generated the most testimony, would criminalize possession, importation and transfer of high-capacity magazines for nearly everyone in Maine. The bill would exempt law enforcement officers and owners of any devices already possessed legally. Maine now has no limit on magazine sizes.

"This bill is only one part of the solution," Alfond testified. "I have no illusions that restricting access to these high-capacity magazines in and of itself will stop the next massacre, but it could reduce the number of lives lost."

Public safety, medical and church groups supported Alfond's bill, which he said is a response to the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 students and teachers.

"When individuals are changing magazines ... they're fumbling as they're in the middle of these tragedies they're creating," said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. "Bystanders take that opportunity to intervene; law enforcement uses those opportunities to intervene, and victims ... use these opportunities to ... escape."

Testimony from gun rights advocates on Alfond's bill centered around self-defense.

The National Rifle Association is the most notable opponent. In written testimony, NRA Maine's state liaison, John Howenwarter, said, "A magazine ban will not affect criminals, it will undermine the ability of an individual to effectively defend themselves."

Blaine Richardson of Belfast, who announced Monday that he will run for Congress in 2014 after an unsuccessful run last year, said Maine and the nation have turned their backs on the mentally ill, and that is the reason for mass shootings.

"We have these very God-given rights so that we can personally protect ourselves," he said. "The problem is, we have groups of people in this country who are not doing their job, and the mental health group is one of them."

Craig Daigle, who owns C&R Trading Post in Brunswick, said he is troubled by the provision of Alfond's bill that would prohibit the transfer of high-capacity magazines, because it would make some guns that Mainers already own impossible to sell. He said he bought a gun 18 years ago as an investment.

"It's invested for my child's college because, guess what, it's tripled in value since I got it," he said. "It's papered, completely legal and, according to this, it won't be."

The other gun control bills heard Monday included proposals by the committee co-chairs, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, and Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.

Dion's proposal, perhaps the most ambitious gun control bill presented Monday, would mandate permitting before gun purchases, require background checks before private sales, and raise the minimum age for concealed-handgun permit holders.

Gerzofsky's bill would mandate gun-show background checks.

Under federal law, gun dealers now must do background checks on buyers, wherever they sell guns. But some gun-show sellers, and all other private sellers, don't have to do the checks.

"On one hand, we elect to regulate commercial firearm sales by enforcing mandatory background checks," Dion said. "On the other hand, we excuse private sales from a similar oversight."

The bill's sponsors appear to have most Mainers on their side. 

In a poll of 403 Mainers conducted last month by Pan Atlantic SMS Group of Portland, nearly 90 percent of those surveyed supported background checks on private and gun-show sales. More than 63 percent said they favor banning ammunition clips holding more than 10 bullets.

In 2011, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said Maine was tied for 25th among states for gun-law weakness. In 2009, Maine ranked 15th-lowest in the nation for firearm deaths, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, the leading gun rights group in Maine, opposes the bills from Alfond, Gerzofsky and Dion. 

David Trahan, the group's executive director, testified that he is "perplexed as to the logic" of Alfond's bill, because "there is virtually no proof" that magazine limits save lives. 

Regarding Gerzofsky's bill, the group said sellers at gun shows could simply leave the shows to make sales without background checks. It said Dion's bill would create a new, costly bureaucracy to enforce checks on private sales.

"For things that are a right, and buying a handgun is a right, having to show a safety certificate is just wrong," Jonathan Burbank of Harpswell said of Dion's bill.

But Cathie Whittenburg, a consultant for States United to Prevent Gun Violence, said recent action in nearby states could necessitate further action in Maine.

New York and Connecticut recently passed laws limiting magazine size and requiring background checks. Massachusetts officials reported in February that, of the 669 guns used in crimes there in 2011, 79 were traced back to Maine, according to The Boston Globe. Massachusetts limits magazine capacities.

If Maine doesn't keep pace, Whittenburg said, it "will become an even more attractive place for people looking to avoid a background check and obtain high-capacity magazines."

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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