Initiatives to combat gun violence announced Tuesday by President Obama could require some Maine gun sellers to register as federally licensed dealers but will not go as far as a background check referendum potentially headed for the November ballot.

With his gun control agenda stalled in Congress, Obama announced a set of executive actions intended to increase the number of background checks conducted before gun sales and to increase states’ reporting of people whose mental illness should disqualify them from buying guns. Obama also plans to increase the number of federal agents who help process background checks, and to take steps to overhaul the national vetting system.

While advocates for tighter gun laws in Maine praised the actions as modest steps, Republican members of Maine’s congressional delegation raised concerns about the president bypassing Congress.

Judi and Wayne Richardson of South Portland were among the family members of gun violence victims who were invited to attend Obama’s speech in the East Room of the White House. The Richardsons’ 25-year-old daughter, Darien, died of medical complications from a gunshot wound in 2010. The case remains unsolved and police were unable to trace the gun – which was linked to a second homicide in Maine – because the original private seller was not required to conduct a background check.

“It was extremely emotional and overwhelming,” said Judi Richardson, who along with her husband is a citizen sponsor of a ballot initiative to expand background checks in Maine. “The room was full of other people who, like us, have been affected by gun violence. It was good to see something come out of (an issue) that we have been working on for so many years.”

But U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who represents Maine’s 2nd District, echoed concerns from other Republicans in accusing the president of attempting to “circumvent the will of Congress and the American people in order to move forward with his continual attacks on law-abiding citizens and the Second Amendment.”

“As I’ve said before, we need to better enforce the laws that are in place now and develop comprehensive strategies to keep Americans safe,” Poliquin said in a statement.

The aspect of Obama’s executive actions that received the most attention Tuesday was his plan to clarify that anyone “in the business” of selling firearms will have to obtain a federal firearm dealer license and, therefore, be required to conduct background checks on potential buyers regardless of where the sale takes place. The change aims to capture individuals who regularly sell firearms at gun shows, flea markets, online or in response to classified advertisements but who have never registered as a licensed dealer.

Maine has a thriving, largely unregulated underground marketplace for firearms, often facilitated through websites or classified publications such as the weekly swap magazine Uncle Henry’s. Under current state and federal laws, Maine sellers are prohibited from conducting a transaction with anyone who is not a Maine resident or who the seller suspects may be prohibited from owning a firearm. But only sellers who are federally licensed dealers are currently required to conduct background checks.

Tuesday’s executive actions appear unlikely to affect many of those private, person-to-person sales. By contrast, the proposed referendum that could appear on Maine’s statewide ballot this November would require background checks on all private sales except those among immediate family members, for hunting trips, to address an imminent threat or for sales of antique guns. Campaign organizers said Tuesday they are confident they will have gathered enough signatures by the end of the month to qualify for the ballot.

Bob Schwartz, a retired police chief who serves as executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said the president’s action would help police and prosecutors enforce existing laws that require people who sell guns as a business to get license, regardless of whether where the transaction takes place.

“But this step won’t close the huge loophole in Maine law that makes it easy for dangerous people to get guns, with no background check, no questions asked,” Schwartz said in a statement. “The Maine Background Check Initiative closes this loophole and makes sure that anyone who buys a gun in Maine gets the same criminal background check – no matter where they buy it or who they buy it from.”

Questions remain about who would have to register as a dealer under the new guidelines.

The White House acknowledged Tuesday that there is no threshold or “magic number” of sales that would trigger a registration requirement. But a 10-page document released this week by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – entitled “Do I Need a License to Buy and Sell Firearms?” – attempts to lay out some of the factors that could prompt the ATF and the courts to deem a seller as being “in the business” of selling firearms.

“As a general rule, you will need a license if you repetitively buy and sell firearms with the principal motive of making profit,” the document states.

Some of the other factors would include if the seller: represents himself or herself as a source for firearms in advertisements or business cards, accepts credit card payments, purchases business insurance to cover a firearms inventory, or repetitively sells/offers to sell firearms shortly after they are acquired.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, believes the executive order will be challenged in court. The bigger issue for Trahan was that Obama was going around Congress on an issue that should be settled through legislation. And to emphasize his point, Trahan gave an example of a future Republican president using executive actions to restrict access to abortion.

“Bypassing Congress is not the way we should be doing things, and the same thing goes for the state,” Trahan said.

Other members of Maine’s congressional delegation had mixed views on Obama’s actions.

“Americans agree: violent criminals and terrorists shouldn’t be able to buy firearms,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, said in a statement. “And it makes sense to close the loophole that lets them avoid background checks by purchasing their guns online or at gun shows.”

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said while he is skeptical of presidential executive orders, he believes the gun proposals were “limited” in their attempts to close loopholes.

“Improving background checks won’t prevent all gun violence in the United States, and Congress can and should do more to curb it … but if closing loopholes saves lives without impinging on the Second Amendment Rights of law-abiding citizens, then I believe it’s a step worth taking,” King said in a statement.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, supports tightening background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill, but says Obama’s “unilateral, executive actions are entirely the wrong way to accomplish this goal.”

“I have long supported a bipartisan proposal in Congress that would strengthen background checks without infringing upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners,” Collins said in a statement. “I disagree, however, with the President’s continued willingness to exceed his executive authority and circumvent Congress.”


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