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Journal Tribune
Updated January 12, 2019
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Debate brewing over gun control bills pending in Maine Legislature

In at least one case, supporters of gun owner rights will have an ally in newly elected Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat. Mills said Tuesday she was not interested in trying to create a universal background check law for Maine, a proposal voters rejected at the ballot box in 2016.

“The people have already spoken on background checks and they spoke pretty loud and clear,” Mills said Tuesday. “Thirteen out of 16 counties voted against background checks. That’s a significant thing to me, the will of the people, we should make sure we listen to the will of the people.”

Other measures being proposed including mandatory waiting periods for firearms purchases and giving local municipalities the right to ban guns from voting places and town meetings, while other proposals seek to ban large-capacity magazine sales or regulate gun storage in homes.

Mills said she couldn’t comment on all of the proposals as she had not yet seen them specifically.

“I haven’t got there yet, I really don’t know what the bills look like,” Mills said. “I’ll take them one step at a time.”

In 2017, as the state’s attorney general, Mills worked with former state Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, also a former Cumberland County Sheriff, to modify a bill that would allow police to temporarily confiscate an individual’s firearms with a judge’s order if they were deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.

The bill, which passed the Legislature, was successfully vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. It was one of several dozen under consideration nationwide that supporters said would help keep guns out of the hands of individuals who are suicidal or prone to violence against others. But the proposals have run into opposition, both in Maine and nationally, from sportsmen’s groups, the National Rifle Association and other gun owners’ rights groups.

Mills’ nomination of former Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck to be the state’s next commissioner of public safety has also drawn criticism from gun advocates, based on Sauschuck’s opposition to a change in state law in 2015 that allowed adults over 21 to carry a concealed handgun without first obtaining a permit.

Sauschuck, a former board member of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, has previously advocated for universal background check legislation as well as red flag bills and legislation that would ban assault-style military weapons.

Sauschuck has been criticized by former state Sen. Eric Brakey, an Auburn Republican, who ushered through the permitless carry or so-called “constitutional carry” law in Maine. Brakey, who unsuccessfully attempted to unseat independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in November has taken to social media to criticize Sauschuck and Mills as well as lawmakers who are proposing new gun regulations.

Meanwhile, Republican minority leaders in the Legislature voiced criticism of the long list of gun control proposals that were beginning to come to light.

“At first glance it is clear that these are solutions to problems we just don’t have here in Maine,” Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said. “We live in the safest state in the nation because of our traditions and heritage which include responsible gun ownership. It’s important to keep that in mind as these bills move through the process.”

House Republicans echoed that sentiment.

“Maine crime is down nearly 47 percent in the last six years, and Maine remains among the safest states in the nation,” House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said. “Republicans are concerned the new majorities will try to legislate away our safety by imitating failed gun laws in crime-ridden cities.”

But advocates for increased gun safety and regulation, including Geoff Bickford, the president of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said Maine does have problems with gun violence – especially suicide by gun.

He said his group will continue to support what they see as “common sense” changes meant to save lives.

He also said some of the flaws in the universal background check legislation that was rejected by voters in 2016 have been removed in the current proposals. Many believe the measure was defeated largely because it would have required a background check for any transfer of a firearm between individuals, including the loaning of weapons between family members for hunting. “So the proposal differs quite a bit from what voters rejected before,” he said.

Bickford said the public in general largely supports universal background checks for all gun sales, noting that poll after poll shows widespread support for the policy.

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