December 15, 2012

Maine and nation must curb guns, advocates argue

But those who favor few restrictions say solutions should focus on the people who are driven to violence.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Gun-control advocates in Maine said Friday's shootings in Connecticut painfully bring into focus the need to revisit gun laws across the nation.

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A mother hugs her daughter following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. It was the worst school shooting in the country's history. (AP Photo/The New Haven Register, Melanie Stengel)

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But gun-rights advocates said the tragedy in Newtown should bring attention to the man who was driven to violence, not the tools he used to carry it out.

While information remained scarce about the 20-year-old who killed himself in the school after the attack, and his motivation for opening fire, advocates in Maine said the mass killing should be a moment of reckoning.

"The change has to come from people of this nation and our leadership," said Karen D'Andrea, executive director of Maine Citizens Against Gun Violence. "We need far more elected officials to stand up and take those issues on."

The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, which has opposed past attempts to pass more restrictive gun legislation, condemned the shootings, said Executive Director David Trahan.

"I understand why people are talking about guns," he said. "But an individual committed this horrible, horrible act. We have to focus on the person."

Unlike states that have adopted more stringent regulations on the purchase, sale and carrying of guns, Maine, with a vibrant and politically active hunting community, has few restrictions.

A special permit is required only for carrying a concealed handgun in public. The state Constitution protects the right to keep and bear arms, saying it "shall never be questioned."

In June 2011, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a bill that permits employees to keep handguns concealed in their cars while they're at work.

Gun-control advocates said that, again and again, shootings plague the nation, raising the question of when Americans will do something to stop them.

D'Andrea said meaningful change should begin with a statewide and national discussion, because one law will not solve a deeply rooted social problem.

Maine's outdoor culture makes it a unique environment for lawmakers, she said.

In other states and in Washington, D.C., the debate often splits along party lines, with Democrats favoring gun control and Republicans opposing it.

In Maine, "you've got Democrats ... who don't want to lose their constituencies, who are hunters, who are gun owners," she said. "Even among progressives, there's a big split on gun laws and how strong they should be."

Trahan said it is unfair to connect firearms with the intent of their users.

He noted that federal law mandates a background check for anyone who buys a gun from a licensed vendor. And automatic weapons are barred by federal regulations, a measure that Trahan said he supports

Semiautomatic weapons, including military-style assault rifles like the Bushmaster .223, used in Friday's shootings, are legal. Semiautomatic weapons also were used in attacks this week at a shopping mall in Oregon and in July at a movie theater in Colorado.

Purchases of guns through private sales do not require background checks.

Trahan said he supports educating private sellers on the availability of background checks through the state, but he did not address making them required.

The federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, opening up the market for such weapons, which resemble in size, shape and power the rifles that were available previously only to law enforcement and the military.

"Semiautomatic firearms are designed legitimately for hunting purposes, for target shooting," Trahan said, and their internal workings are similar to those in less controversial guns.

"It can hold one bullet or 20," he said of weapons with extended magazines. "It's the individual who uses it" who is responsible.

"People who want to commit these crimes, they're going to get access (to guns) no matter what," Trahan said.

But anti-violence advocates say Trahan's approach can be dangerous.

Ethan Strimling, who represented Portland in the state Senate from 2002 to 2008 and led an effort in 2005 to extend the ban on assault weapons in Maine, said easy access to deadly weapons is a common denominator in mass tragedies.

His effort was defeated, with opposition from the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and the National Rifle Association.

Gun-rights groups lobbied legislators and packed a hearing with opponents of the bill, Strimling said.

In Maine, "there is a long gun history so I think they already have a tilt in this state," said Strimling. "But I think Maine people are willing to enact sensible gun policy."

Strimling said an issue like gun violence don't resonate until it affects people personally.

Cathie Whittenburg, a spokeswoman for States United Against Gun Violence, lamented the reluctance among politicians in Augusta to seriously consider new legislation, and blamed the lobbying power of the NRA.

The association's leadership represents an extreme view of gun rights and does not reflect the views of the NRA's nearly 4 million members, Whittenburg said.

She pointed to a poll of 945 gun owners sponsored this year by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which found that most who responded supported tougher background checks for all firearm purchasers, checks on employees of gun stores, and stricter limits on concealed-carry permits.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:


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