By Kevin Miller
WASHINGTON - Members of Maine's congressional delegation were largely tight-lipped Sunday on specific gun-control proposals following the Connecticut shootings that killed 20 children and re-ignited the national debate about how to stop mass shootings in America.
While U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Sen.-elect Angus King indicated they could support significant changes to the nation's gun laws, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe were less committal.
"At a time when so many continue to grieve, this is not the time for politics," Michaud, D-District 2, said in a statement. "However, in the days and weeks ahead, there will be time for reflection and discussion."
It remains unclear whether gun-control advocates will be able to win any new restrictions on sales of guns or ammunition next year with Democrats in control of one chamber of Congress and Republicans the other. But some are suggesting that Friday's elementary school killings -- unlike other recent mass shootings -- may tip the scales in favor of those supporting stricter gun laws.
In Maine, like many rural states with a rich outdoor heritage, lawmakers from both parties are often strong supporters of gun-owners' rights. The National Rifle Association regularly donates to Michaud, a conservative Democrat, and has supported both of Maine's Republican senators in the past. The CEO of a former manufacturer of the model of high-powered rifle used on Friday has donated to Michaud, and to Republican Sens. Collins and Snowe.
On Sunday, Pingree and King were the only delegation members to call for reform of the nation's gun laws.
Pingree, the delegation's most liberal member, indicated that she would support banning military-style assault weapons as well as high-capacity ammunition clips or magazines -- two issues on which she has co-sponsored bills in the past. Pingree also called on Congress to require background checks for gun buyers who purchase firearms from unlicensed sellers at gun shows or through private sales, such as Internet ads.
"Unfortunately, Congress has allowed the powerful pro-gun special interests to block action on any reasonable gun laws," Pingree said in a statement. "But we can't avoid the issue any longer. It would be tragic if Congress and the president can't now come together to take a serious look at how the nation's gun laws can be reformed."
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority shareowner of MaineToday Media, publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
The shootings appear to have affected the views of King, a political independent and former two-term governor.
During the campaign, King said he would not support re-enacting the ban on assault weapons in place under the Brady Bill from 1994 to 2004. But King said Sunday that there is sufficient reason to take a close look at assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
"Given the role both appear to have played in this and other recent incidents, this discussion is vitally necessary as we try to balance the rights of law-abiding gun owners under the Second Amendment and the interest we all share in the safety of ourselves and our children," King said in a statement to the Portland Press Herald. "I intend to engage the gun-owning community in Maine in this discussion as well as those who advocate for stronger regulation and control."
King's critics are likely to point out that, during the campaign, he was the beneficiary of more than $1 million in ads aired by Americans Elect, an outside group heavily supported by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a prominent gun-control advocate.
But the other Maine delegation members -- like many lawmakers on Capitol Hill -- said little when presented Sunday with a list of questions on specific gun-control proposals.
Collins' office pointed out that she voted in 2004 to extend the ban on assault weapons under the Brady Bill and has supported instant background checks for gun purchasers.
"Senator Collins grew up in northern Maine where responsible gun ownership is part of the heritage of many families," Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said in a written statement. "While denying the rights of law-abiding citizens won't change the behavior of those intent on using firearms for criminal purposes, Senator Collins believes that our country should examine what can be done to help prevent gun violence."
Collins' office did not reply to subsequent requests for more information on specific gun-control issues.
Collins received nearly $20,000 from the NRA's political action committee from 1996 to 2002, but has not received any contributions since then. Collins has received more than $17,000 in financial contributions from Richard Dyke, the CEO of the former Bushmaster Firearms facility in Windham, or his family members since 1996, campaign finance records show. The last contribution was in 2007, however.
Michaud, a conservative or "Blue Dog" Democrat, has traditionally defended gun-owners' rights and opposed numerous gun-control initiatives. For instance, he has voted to end Washington, D.C.'s ban on gun ownership and voted to support legislation shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits.
"A national conversation about curbing violence in America is overdue, especially in the wake of these unthinkable murders," Michaud said. "That conversation has to include how we can better enforce our gun laws while at the same time addressing the root causes of these tragedies, which are too often related to how we as a nation do or do not address the mental health care challenges facing our country."
Michaud is the top recipient in recent years of donations from the National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund, which has contributed $18,000 to the Democrat since 2004, including $3,000 in this past election cycle.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, another moderate Republican, likewise declined to comment on specific proposals. Snowe is unlikely to have a chance to vote on substantive gun measures before she retires next month.
"Senator Snowe believes this is a time for national mourning, and for Americans to come together in support of the families of the victims, the survivors, and the heroic first responders," Snowe spokesman Chris Averill said in a written response. "There will be opportunity to have a national discussion and a debate on gun issues in the coming new Congress."
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: