Gov. Janet Mills arrives to deliver her State of the State address in Augusta on Tuesday evening. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to require background checks for some private firearm sales is the most significant of the gun safety reforms she outlined during her State of the State address Tuesday.

And it gives new momentum to an idea that has been defeated multiple times before, including by voters in a 2016 statewide referendum and just last year by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

“I have arrived at the conclusion that I do not know how we can allow people who legally cannot have guns to buy them through a private sale and pose a risk to themselves or the public,” Mill said Tuesday. “And I do not know how we can hold commercial sellers to a higher standard, while allowing an underground market of private sellers to advertise guns for sale without any restrictions.”

Mills’ proposal could face less opposition than past efforts because it applies only to advertised sales and would not require background checks for sales or transfers of firearms through non-advertised transactions, such as those between family members and friends.

And the mass shooting in Lewiston has caused lawmakers to reconsider their previous opposition, potentially opening the door to a different outcome in a floor vote.

But political analysts aren’t sure those changes will be enough to win legislative approval in a state that has a strong tradition of gun ownership and hunting.


“More often than not, gun violence does not result in major policy changes,” said Mark Brewer, chair of political science at the University of Maine. “That doesn’t mean that’s going to be the case here in Maine, but it certainly has not been the pattern in other states or nationally. Maybe Maine will be different. We’ll see.”

Expanding background checks was one of several proposals Mills made in response to the mass shooting in Lewiston, in which gunman Robert Card killed 18 people and wounded 13 others at two locations.

Mills also proposed creating a network of mental health crisis centers, beginning in Lewiston, and allowing police to seek a court order to forcibly take someone into custody so they can seek a medical evaluation and court order to temporarily confiscate the firearms of someone deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Police have said they can’t use the so-called yellow flag law when they don’t have legal grounds to take a person into custody.

The details of each proposal are not yet available. The bill language is expected to be published in the coming days for public hearings and legislative work sessions.

Nicholas Jacobs, an assistant government professor at Colby College, said Mills’ background check proposal already has cleared an important hurdle.

“Her proposal isn’t going to run into one of the largest roadblocks that’s prevented gun reform control in the past, which is herself,” Jacobs said. “It’s quite noteworthy and important that she has come out in favor of these proposals, including proposals that she has opposed before.”


The shootings, however, do not appear to have softened opposition among House Republicans.


House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said in a radio interview on WVOM Wednesday morning that while the shooting was a horrible tragedy, the number of murders in Maine last year was the same as “a bad week in Chicago.”

Faulkingham said the sister of a shooting victim told him that her brother wouldn’t want his death to be used to enact gun control and he said the shootings shouldn’t drive major changes in state law. “I don’t think the state of Maine should be building gun policy on the actions of one person who was apparently a paranoid schizophrenic.”

Faulkingham said Republicans would likely support proposals to bolster mental health care.

“I haven’t heard a single gun-control proposal that would have actually mattered in this incident,” he said. “Stopping private gun sales, as the governor rolled out last night, wouldn’t have anything to do with this incident.”


Democrats control the House, Senate and the Blaine House and could pass legislation without Republicans, but it has been a tough sell for some members of their party, too.

Last year, Democrats in the Senate joined Republicans to block an expansion of background checks and a ban on rapid-fire devices, both of which passed in the House. A bill to enact a 72-hour waiting period on firearm sales failed in both chambers.

Nine Senate Democrats voted last year against the expansion of background checks to include private sales, including Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic.

Jackson said Tuesday night that he would need to see the details of Mills’ legislation before taking a position on a proposal he has traditionally opposed. “I’ve been on that side of it traditionally, even though I don’t really understand why someone who is a law-abiding gun owner can’t go through a background check,” Jackson said.

Vitelli said through a spokesperson that she wasn’t available for an interview Wednesday. She did not respond to a request to explain her opposition to last year’s bill.

“The proposals outlined by the governor seem to suggest a way for background checks to be conducted so these policies don’t undermine or infringe upon the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners. I look forward to digging into these proposals further,” Vitelli said in a written statement.


Sen. Mike Tipping, D-Orono, said in a brief interview he was “initially supportive” of the governor’s proposal. He said he voted against a similar bill last year because he wanted it to go out to referendum. He too said he’d need to see the details before commenting further.

Other Democratic senators who voted against the bill – Joe Baldacci, of Bangor; Chip Curry, of Belfast; Craig Hickman, of Winthrop; David LaFountain, of Winslow; Timothy Nangle, of Windham; and Cameron Reny, of Round Pond – did not respond to interview requests.

Pieces of Mills’ proposal also could face resistance from those who have advocated for a bold response to the shooting.


The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said in a statement Wednesday that it is concerned about Mills’ proposal to make violations of the proposed background check rule a felony offense. The group has generally opposed legislation that creates new felony crimes.

“Creating a new felony offense in Maine will worsen our incarceration crisis and further increase racial disparities in arrests, convictions, and sentencing,” ACLU Policy Counsel Michael Kebede said. “Maine should invest in violence interruption programs, which have been proven to reduce violent crime, instead of doubling-down on systems of incarceration.”


The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a powerful lobbying group for gun owners that has opposed background checks on private sales in the past, hasn’t taken a position on Mills’ proposal, said Executive Director David Trahan, who like others wants to see the details of the bill before bringing it to his board of directors.

Trahan said he was relieved that Mills didn’t bow to pressure from gun safety advocates.

“I think there was an expectation that the governor might have been more extreme in some of her proposals, and I think people were surprised she was trying to thread the needle the way she did,” Trahan said.

Political analysts and observers said it’s too early to know whether carving out an exception for unadvertised sales or transfers between family and friends would be enough to overcome opposition.

Lance Dutson, a Republican strategist, worked on the unsuccessful 2016 campaign to expand background checks in Maine through a citizen referendum. He said opponents successfully played up fears that people would no longer be able to conduct “casual transfers,” such as lending a hunting rifle to a friend.

Dutson said Mills’ bill is “significantly different” than the 2016 proposal, but the bill’s prospects depend on rural Democrats.

“It’s going to be a tough sell in any case, just because it’s Maine,” he said.

Staff Writer Rachel Ohm contributed to this report. 

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