AUGUSTA — A legislative committee endorsed a bill Tuesday to require background checks on all private firearm sales in Maine, whether they are made at a gun show or in response to a classified ad.

But the committee’s divided vote raises questions about the bill’s fate in the full Legislature. Meanwhile, there is growing optimism at the State House about a bipartisan compromise on a controversial “red flag” bill that aims to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.

“We think this is a much better way of identifying people who are in crisis – all sorts of crises – and getting them treatment,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, one of the principal negotiators of the “red flag” alternative.

With just three weeks left in the 2019 legislative session, it is unclear which, if any, of the gun-related measures will survive the political process. But on Tuesday, members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 7-5 – with one lawmaker absent – to support a measure that gun control advocates say is needed to close a gaping public safety loophole in Maine.

The bill, as amended Tuesday, would require gun sellers to enlist the help of a federally licensed firearm dealer to run a background check on a would-be buyer before completing a private transaction. The requirement would apply to private transactions that occur at gun shows or after the seller advertises the firearm for sale either online or in print.

In a major change aimed at winning additional support, bill supporters agreed to drop the background check requirement for gun “transfers” – whether loans or gifts – between family or friends. It is widely believed that opposition to mandatory background checks on such gun transfers contributed heavily to the defeat of a background check referendum in 2016.


Opponents questioned the necessity of the proposal because many private gun sellers are already requiring background checks of would-be buyers. But Tuesday’s discussion also featured some of the language and rhetoric often used in response to any attempt to impose additional restrictions on gun sales.

Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, said it is “time for us to stop being a nanny state” because background checks are not going to stop a criminal or mass shooter determined to get their hands on guns.

“I think this is just one of those things right now where it’s the nose under the tent for the camel, and the next thing you know we’re going to be looking at … is a gun registry down the road,” said Pickett, a retired police chief.

Bill supporters, meanwhile, said they were struggling to understand the opposition if many private sellers were already running background checks to make sure they buyer isn’t prohibited from owning firearms.

“How would you know if you are selling to a prohibited person if you’re not required to do a background check?” said Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland. “That’s the point to me. … This is a significant loophole in our safety net in the state, that we are not doing this for advertisements for guns.”

On other bills, the majority of committee members voted to kill L.D. 379, a bill that would have required gun owners to properly secure a loaded firearm in their house if there’s a chance a child may encounter it. Committee members deadlocked 6-6, however, on L.D. 1099, a bill to require a 72-hour waiting period for someone to pick up a newly purchased gun.


All of those bills will now go to the House and Senate floor, where they will likely face opposition from most Republicans as well as some Democrats from rural areas.

There appears to be bipartisan support, meanwhile, for enacting additional measures to temporarily remove guns from individuals deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

Last week, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee was deeply divided over a so-called “red flag” bill that would allow police to obtain a court order to temporarily confiscate guns from potentially dangerous individuals. Fifteen states have adopted versions of “red flag” bills.

But opponents of such “extreme risk protection orders” decried the bill, L.D. 1312, as a blatant attack on citizens’ constitutional rights because it allows police to seize guns without due process.

That bill likely faced difficult odds in the full Legislature, but particularly in the more closely divided Senate. But lawmakers are expecting to soon see an alternative proposal negotiated by a bipartisan group of legislators, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills.

That compromise seeks to, instead, use Maine’s existing “protective custody” or “yellow paper” law to temporarily separate individuals from their firearms. The proposal, which is expected to be introduced as a new bill, would require individuals to surrender their firearms if a medical professional determines that their mental status suggests they could pose a threat to themselves or others.


A judge would have to review that decision within 14 days and could extend the firearms restrictions for up to a year. The law also would require the medical professional to advise the person about treatment options, and the individual could petition for the return of his or her guns by proving to the court that they no longer pose a danger.

Trahan, a former state lawmaker who heads the Sportsman’s Alliance, believes the bill has a much better chance of passage than the original “red flag” measure.

“Some really smart people came together and we came up with a process that we think is much better,” Trahan said.

Mills’ office did not respond to a request for comment on the compromise.

Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, said the bill is a recognition that some people should not have access to firearms, at times, because of their mental state. Carpenter, a former Maine attorney general, said the proposal builds on the existing protective-custody laws and uses a “behavior-based” criteria for determining when someone should have to surrender their firearms.

“I truly believe, if this were enacted, that it might just save a life,” Carpenter said.

The bill had not yet been printed Tuesday evening. It will be the subject of a public hearing.

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