November 18, 2012

Bill Nemitz: With anger holstered, gun debate can be productive

It had the makings of a great editorial cartoon -- except it actually happened.

"I was going to bring a handgun tonight to use as a prop," said George Smith, the former longtime executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, to his rapt audience Thursday evening at Portland's Italian Heritage Center.

Not just any audience, mind you. Smith, still one of Maine's most prominent sportsmen, was speaking to none other than membership of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence.

(Think oil and water -- or maybe a spark in the powder keg.)

But back to the handgun prop. Smith said he ultimately decided against bringing one of his pistols for a little show and tell after Dr. Robert McAfee, a board member since MCAHV's founding 12 years ago, tactfully "talked me out of it."

"We had an interesting discussion and I understood that would be disrespectful," Smith told the group. "And I do respect each and every one of you and your concerns about firearms violence -- because I share those."

There are those on both sides of Maine's never-ending debate over gun control who will see last week's address by Smith as heresy of the highest order.

To at least a few among the crowd of about 100, in fact, the invitation for Smith to speak was a total cop-out, a white flag at a time when virtually any legislative effort to curb gun violence is dead on arrival courtesy of the all-powerful National Rifle Association.

To others with NRA membership cards proudly tucked inside their wallets, on the other hand, Smith's willingness to break bread with the opposition will only hasten the dreaded day when, as the cliche goes, guns are outlawed and thus only the outlaws have guns.

Yet as MCAHV board member and Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic put it in introducing Smith, "This is a seminal moment in the gun-violence movement here in Maine."

Let's hope so.

It all started several weeks ago when McAfee, MCAHV President Thomas Franklin and founder William Harwood, eager to at least narrow the chasm between those who want tighter restrictions on Maine's firearms and those who don't, sat down over lunch with Smith to see if he'd be interested in keynoting their annual banquet.

It wasn't the first collaboration between Smith, who led the politically potent Sportsman's Alliance of Maine for 18 years before stepping down in 2010, and the group he once dismissed as unable "to demonstrate that Maine has a problem with guns. Because we don't."

Back in 2003, as MCAHV's Harwood and then-Attorney General Steve Rowe worked to pass a law authorizing judges to take firearms away from people served with temporary protection-from-abuse orders, a sympathetic Smith suggested that MCAHV step aside and let SAM take the fight to the Legislature.

It worked.

"We knew we'd have an easier time if gun advocates led that effort," Smith recalled last week. "And we were right. Bill (Harwood) certainly helped, but in a quiet, behind-the-scenes way -- and that made a big difference. And it added to my respect for him and your organization."

(A footnote: After promising also to get behind that bill, the NRA bailed at the last minute and opposed it -- a betrayal Smith has not forgotten to this day.)

More recently, Smith taped a public service announcement advancing another MCAHV initiative: Persuade gun owners who sell their weapons privately to first have their local gun shop perform a background check on the buyer "to protect yourself, but also to make sure your gun is not used in a crime."

Smith showed the soon-to-be-aired ad during his speech. It drew sustained applause.

(Continued on page 2)

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