Saturday, March 8, 2014
With all the debate on the best way to prevent gun violence, surprisingly, there is one area of common ground.
From those who want to see tighter controls on gun sales to those who think we would be safer if more people were armed, almost everyone agrees that as a society, we don't do a good enough job enforcing the laws currently on the books.
If Maine is going to make any meaningful reform to its laws four months after the Newtown massacre, building on that common ground is the right place to start.
This is "gun week" in Augusta, where lawmakers will hold public hearings on bills from one end of the political spectrum to the other. Most will be supported with some familiar slogans, but a few will be based on common sense.
One of those is L.D. 1240, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, which makes a number of changes, large and small, to state statutes that would keep guns out of the hands of people unqualified to have them.
The most important change is making all sales, including private ones, subject to instant background checks unless they are transfers between immediate family members.
Dion's bill would prohibit sales of firearms to people involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, whether they were sent there by a court or admitted from an emergency room. (It would also create a process by which someone who has lost his gun ownership rights for mental health reasons to appeal and regain them if his mental status changes.)
And it would require gun buyers to show that they have completed a gun safety course, just as the state does for people applying for a hunting license.
None of these proposals would deny a gun to anyone who is currently permitted to buy one under existing law, but they would keep guns out of the hands of people who are now prohibited from owning them but have them anyway as a result of holes in the system.
The most important proposal is making the background check mandatory in nearly every sale. Currently, only licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct them, allowing an estimated 40 percent of sales to be completed without a check. A felon or someone with a history of psychiatric commitments or domestic violence assault knows he can buy a gun advertised by a private owner in publications like Uncle Henry's and skirt the requirement.
The evidence shows that background checks work. In 2011, the FBI identified and denied gun sales to more than 78,000 prohibited buyers, and that's with a massive private-sale loophole available.
This issue would be best handled on the federal level, but the fact that Congress has not acted makes it all the more important for states like Maine to do something. New York and Connecticut have closed their private-sale loopholes, and Masachusetts and Rhode Island are considering it.
As more states in the Northeast require checks for all sales, Maine creates an opportunity for the illegal gun trade, attracting criminals from other states to look for private sellers here.
A common criticism of universal background checks is that they are unnecessary because they would affect only law-abiding citizens. Criminals, the critics say, would find other ways to get guns. That same argument, however, could be made against any law in the criminal code. A background check won't eliminate the black market in guns, but it could reduce the number of guns available to sell illegally.
Other elements of Dion's bill are also important. The language that prohibits the sale of guns to people deemed dangerous as a result of mental illness is out of date, and was written when there were many people committed to institutions. His bill would update the language and make it more clear who should not be allowed to buy one. Creating a process whereby someone can regain his gun rights takes away one reason a family might be afraid to seek help when a relative is having a mental health crisis.
A safety course that instructs on the responsibilities of firearms ownership and informs about the risk factors that have led to tragic outcomes could save lives. We've made enormous progress in hunter safety in part by requiring the completion of a safety course, and we should do the same with people who are bringing potentialy dangerous weapons into their homes.
These reforms, packaged with other refinements to existing law, would help keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them, without preventing qualified people from obtaining them.
There are other good reforms that will go before the Legislature this week, such as a ban on high-capacity magazines, which will likely cause controversy,
But lawmakers should find ample common ground with L.D. 1240 as a way to improve public safety in Maine.