April 7, 2013

In Senate, gun laws will be 'a challenge'

Their constituents keep Maine’s Sens. Collins and King in the middle on stronger controls, but they are seen as potential swing votes.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - Rep. Mike Michaud is a Democrat who voted for President Obama's controversial health care law, supports legalizing same-sex marriage and is a dyed-in-the-wool labor union member.

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Sen. Susan Collins

Angus King
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Sen. Angus King


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When it comes to gun control, however, Michaud has an A-minus rating from the National Rifle Association.

Likewise, Maine Sen. Susan Collins is a moderate Republican known for crossing party lines and Sen. Angus King is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Yet both are unlikely to support the more far-reaching aspects of the gun control package pending before Congress.

Few political issues skew party labels as reliably as gun control. And Maine's congressional delegation in many ways epitomizes the challenge facing Obama and gun control advocates as they woo lawmakers with rural constituencies to support the first major federal gun laws in decades.

"It's been a significant challenge, there's no doubt," said Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control" and chairman of the political science program at the State University of New York at Cortland. Like Maine and many other states, Spitzer's New York has a distinct urban-rural divide that leads to split delegations.

"My feeling from the very beginning after Newtown was it was going to be a tough haul for advocates for stronger laws because that's just how this issue is," Spitzer said.

The Senate is expected to take its first votes on various gun control proposals as early as this week, nearly four months after 20 first-graders and six elementary school staffers were shot to death in Newtown, Conn.

Gun control advocates need to pick up support from both Democrats and Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance legislation in the 100-seat Senate, so both King and Collins are regarded as potential swing votes.

The bill under consideration in the Senate will propose near-universal background checks on gun purchases -- including the type of private sales common in Maine -- and matching grants to schools to increase security and training. Collins is a primary co-sponsor of the school safety legislation.

Collins was also the lead Republican on proposals to stiffen penalties for gun traffickers and "straw purchasers" who buy a gun for someone who cannot legally purchase one. But both the background checks and the gun trafficking bills have come under scrutiny from the NRA and some lawmakers in recent weeks.

Some of the most ambitious proposals are unlikely to pass the Senate -- let alone the Republican-controlled House. A ban on the type of assault rifle used by the Newtown shooter, for instance, appears headed nowhere after King and several Democrats from gun-heavy states said they could not back it.

"Every time a weapon is (prohibited), the manufacturer makes slight changes to get around the ban," said Marge Kilkelly, a King adviser working with him on gun issues. "We have looked at this in so many different ways and we wanted to make sure it was enforceable."

Collins and King have also voiced support for requiring background checks on private, person-to-person firearm sales as well as at gun shows. But both want to see exemptions for transactions between family members. Collins and other Republicans have also questioned who would keep records of the background checks, while raising concerns about creating a de facto "national registry" of gun owners -- a concern dismissed by bill backers, who insist federal law already prohibits a registry.

"She has expressed concerns about the record-keeping provisions in the bill as proposed by Sen. (Chuck) Schumer," said Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. "She has said she would support language to strengthen background checks, but she does believe that transfers among family members should be exempted unless there is reason to believe that the family member is prohibited from owning a firearm."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Wayne and Judi Richardson of South Portland give Crystal Canney, communications director for Sen. Angus King, petitions with more than 6,000 signatures in support of federal gun controls at King’s Portland office on Friday. The Richardsons’ daughter Darien died in 2010 after being shot by an intruder in her apartment.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer


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