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.

"So that's what we can do when we respect each other, talk to each other, put aside the rhetoric and focus on the important things," Smith said. "We can't be afraid of or opposed to working together. We have to respect you and you must respect us."

Fair enough. But their disagreements -- and they are many -- remain.

During an extended question-and-answer session, MCAHV members questioned why semi-automatic assault weapons have to be used in hunting, why high-capacity magazines have to carry 50 rounds or more of ammunition, why all gun shows can't be required to perform background checks on all buyers and why open-carry laws are so sacrosanct in Maine and other states.

More than once, Smith admitted he didn't have all the answers to such concerns. But he did offer one big piece of advice.

"You need to stop fighting the NRA," he said. "That's a battle you can't win."

Rather, he said, MCAHV should focus its efforts on more achievable, voluntary goals -- not unlike its past success in encouraging gun owners to keep their weapons locked when not in use and store them far away from any ammunition.

"I got some trigger locks when you distributed them," Smith noted. "That was a great initiative on your part."

Where this all goes from here remains to be seen. Most of Maine's recent legislative activity around guns -- allowing employees to keep weapons in their cars while at work, for example -- hasn't given MCAHV much to cheer about.

That said, Harwood noted after Smith's hour-long presentation, the impending shift in the Legislature from Republican to Democratic control "has clearly been a move in our direction."

"But we don't want to overplay our hand," Harwood added. "As George said tonight, this is an incremental fight and we've got to take small steps."

As for Smith, he was glad he made the trip -- and that he left his hardware at home.

"After almost 50 years of involvement in Maine politics, I am no longer interested in wasting time on foolish and frivolous arguments and political theater," he told his unlikely audience. "Perhaps we can accept our differences of opinion and find issues and projects on which we can cooperate and collaborate."

Leave it to George Smith to identify a worthy target.

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

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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