Politics

July 1, 2013

Culture, vocal foes foil Maine gun limits

Despite the Newtown massacre and the 31 weapons-related bills, lawmakers added few controls.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - Maine Senate President Justin Alfond grew up in rural Dexter, where he remembers having friends who drove to high school with hunting guns on racks in their trucks.

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Justin Alfond
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Maine Senate President Justin Alfond said he felt a mandate to submit legislation involving "reasonable restrictions" on guns, adding in an interview last week that lawmakers had to have that "thorough conversation."

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In November, Alfond, who represents part of Portland, and fellow Democrats took the Maine Legislature back from Republicans after campaigning mostly against Gov. Paul LePage. Gun control wasn't especially on their radar.

But in December, after gunman Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 students and six educators, a national gun control debate ensued, leading Connecticut and other states to pass sweeping gun control measures.

Alfond said he felt a mandate to submit similar legislation involving "reasonable restrictions," adding in an interview last week that lawmakers had to have that "thorough conversation."

But there was little appetite for restriction when it came time to vote in the Legislature this year.

This past session, Maine lawmakers submitted 31 gun-related bills. The last Legislature to submit that many bills on guns took office 10 years ago. That group submitted 32 in two years.

The state's gun laws remain essentially the same, though. Alfond's bill to limit clips to 10 rounds, an ambitious proposal, was rejected unanimously by a legislative committee.

Rural Democrats, including the assistant leaders in the House and Senate, Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan and Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, opposed it, saying they didn't know what violence it would prevent. They owned guns that would have been affected by the bill.

Other bills got further, such as one to mandate background checks before private and gun-show firearm sales, but didn't make it into law. Motivated gun-rights supporters came to the State House in droves to oppose them.

"Given what happened in Connecticut, we thought these bills had a better chance to pass than in the past," said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, a pro-gun rights group. "Our organization is very happy with how the session went."

Meanwhile, gun control advocates say public opinion is on their side in Maine and elsewhere, and they'll win out in the end.

To experts, it's not so simple. Especially in rural areas, Maine has a deep-rooted sporting culture. Violence isn't high, so gun control isn't seen by many as being necessary.

That affects legislators' views and votes, said Ronald Schmidt, a University of Southern Maine political science professor.

"The conventional wisdom is that there are Maine voters that would be very opposed to that, and there aren't a lot of people that would be very in favor of it," he said, referring to gun control legislation. "Passing something with a lukewarm majority isn't worth (upsetting) a vocal minority."

LOW-VIOLENCE STATES SHUN CONTROLS

In many ways, Maine's gun culture is similar to that of nearby New England states, especially Vermont. Both are seen by national observers as liberal states, but both have relaxed gun laws.

They're both rural, and gun violence isn't seen as a large problem. Among states, Maine had the 10th-fewest firearms deaths per capita in 2010, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Vermont had the 22nd fewest.

Yet the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, a gun control group, faulted the two states in a 2011 state-by-state ranking of gun laws' strengths, putting them among 31 states identified as having "few or no" gun laws.

A 2011 study by USM's Muskie School of Public Service found that nearly 47 percent of Maine survey respondents had firearms at home. A 2001 survey cited by a University of Vermont paper found that 42 percent of Vermonters said they owned guns.

And like Maine, Vermont also saw stagnant gun control efforts this year. There, Democratic state Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, from a Burlington suburb, introduced a bill that would ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's Poll: Gun limits

Are you happy with the Maine Legislature’s actions on gun bills this session?

Yes

No

View Results