March 24, 2013

Dan Demeritt: Keeping guns from criminals a worthy goal of regulation

The adrenaline surged through my veins as my target and gun sight crossed paths. Taking a breath, I willed all movement from my body save for the slowly increasing pressure in my trigger finger. Almost involuntarily my weapon recoiled, sending a projectile across the landscape toward my target. Time seemed to stand still until, through the stillness, I heard the impact.

The metallic clang of the pellet hitting an empty beer can signified my shot had been true. The cut to my eyebrow from the scope recoiling into my skin signified my lack of experience and general ineptness for all things firearms.

Before writing a column on the politics of guns, I figured I had better talk with my friend George Smith, one of Maine's most respected voices on firearms, the outdoors and all things Mount Vernon.

George and I agree that Sen. Susan Collins is right on target.

Maine has a long and cherished tradition of responsible gun ownership. Present columnist excluded, we are a state of sportsmen and women who hunt, fish and recreate in our vast forests and along our rivers, lakes and streams. And we are a state with one of the lowest rates of violent gun crimes in the country.

But we are also part of a nation that has been ravaged by horrific acts of gun violence and is home to neighborhoods that are neither safe nor civil because of the constant threat of violent, gun-related crimes.

There seems to be three approaches in Washington. On one hand we have the reactionaries who would both over reach and underperform in the effort to curb gun violence. The solutions they propose include national gun registries and assault weapons bans arbitrarily outlawing guns based on how they look rather than function.

Their solutions also lack political viability.

We learned last week from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that a proposed assault weapons ban will not be part of the legislation the Senate considers following the Easter Recess because it lacks the 60 votes necessary to achieve floor consideration.

There is also a "do nothing" approach that holds that the right to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution prohibits any action that could in anyway change access to firearms despite the clear need to keep guns out of the hands of the criminal and dangerously unstable.

The third approach is a pragmatic look at what we can do to prevent criminals and those with profound mental illness from accessing firearms.

It is an approach that is gaining traction. It is our country's best opportunity to pass meaningful reforms, and Maine Sen. Collins is right in the thick of it.

Earlier this month Collins joined Vermont Democrat and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy in offering the Stop Illegal Trafficking of Firearms Act of 2013.

The goal of this bill is to make it more difficult for convicted criminals to gain access to firearms that they are prohibited from owning.

Current loopholes in federal law make preventing and prosecuting straw purchasing and gun trafficking very difficult for law enforcement officials.

Straw purchasers-individuals who purchase a gun for someone who is prohibited by law from owning a firearm-are often prosecuted as mere paperwork violations.

The Leahy-Collins bill would create a specific criminal offense for straw purchasing and trafficking in firearms. Instead of a slap on the wrist, these crimes would be punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

The steps we take to prevent criminals from owning firearms help protect the innocent. They also protect the rights of the law abiding by providing common-sense approaches to reducing gun violence that do not require infringements on those who are legally entitled to own guns today.

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