Gun safety and reform activists as well as gun rights activists crowd the State House as lawmakers return for the start of the second regular session of the 131st Legislature in January. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — Democrats in the Maine Legislature met privately with a top federal firearms official Wednesday as lawmakers and gun safety advocates worked to shore up support for a package of gun safety reforms.

Democrats met behind closed doors for nearly 90 minutes with a deputy director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for a briefing about existing regulations. Republicans criticized the move and passed up an offer to hold a similar meeting, saying they would do so only in public.

Democrats also arranged a public meeting for the full Judiciary Committee on Wednesday afternoon to hear from an anti-domestic violence group that supports the reforms.

The meetings came a day before a key committee session and possible vote on a package of gun safety reforms that have stirred passions on both sides of the issue.

Also Wednesday, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition launched a fundraising effort to raise $235,000 for an advertising campaign to advocate for new gun safety laws in response to the mass shooting in Lewiston last fall.

The group is pushing for a 72-hour waiting period and expanded background checks for gun purchases, a ban on bump stocks and other devices to make semi-automatic guns fire like fully automatic weapons, and a red flag law to temporarily take firearms away from people deemed to pose a risk.


All of those proposals have faced opposition from Republicans, who argue that none of the proposals would have stopped Robert Card Jr. from killing 18 people and injuring 13 others during a shooting rampage at a bowling alley and a bar in October.

On Tuesday, Republicans used an interim report released by a state commission investigating the shooting to push back against changes proposed to Maine’s yellow flag law.

Republicans also have argued that a waiting period for purchases would make it harder for domestic violence victims to protect themselves and that the proposal for banning rapid-fire devices shows a lack of understanding about how firearms work.

Democrats serving on the committee reviewing the gun safety bills moved Wednesday to counter those criticisms by arranging meetings with experts on domestic violence and firearms.

The Democrat-led Judiciary Committee initially scheduled public meetings for Wednesday afternoon to hear from James P. Vann, the ATF’s deputy director for enforcement programs and services, and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

The full committee meeting with the ATF representative was canceled, however, after the federal agency requested that the meeting be held in private. It wasn’t clear why representatives of the ATF asked for the meeting to be in private. A spokesperson for the ATF’s Boston office said he was unaware of any presentation to the state Legislature.


Open meetings laws prohibit the committee from meeting together in a private session, so the ATF representative offered to meet privately in separate sessions with Democrats and Republicans. Party caucuses are routinely held behind closed doors.

Democrats agreed to a private meeting with Vann, while Republicans criticized the decision.

Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, said she spoke with her fellow Republicans serving on the committee and they skipped the informational meeting because they believe it should have been public.

“We all agree that transparency is of the utmost importance, and we have no desire to meet with the ATF behind closed doors,” Poirier said. “We’re totally against any private meeting. We want transparency.”


Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, who co-chairs the committee, said Wednesday morning that the private sessions were intended to answer questions that came up during last week’s work session on the bills.


Carney said the ATF did not give a reason why it wanted to meet in private. A spokesperson for the Senate Democrats said it was Carney’s understanding that the U.S. Department of Justice would only allow Vann to brief lawmakers in private.

Carney defended the private session earlier Wednesday, saying it was an opportunity for all lawmakers to have their questions answered, even if it was in separate sessions and outside of public view.

“I think it’s really important for everybody to have clear information,” Carney said. “I would hope (Republicans) would take this opportunity to get that clear information.”

After the meeting, Carney said lawmakers received a presentation entitled, “Federal Firearms Law 101.” But she declined to provide additional information “out of fidelity to the longstanding tradition in this building of not talking about what’s discussed in caucus.”

Meanwhile, gun safety advocates began raising money for a public push to convince lawmakers to support the bills, saying “we have an incredible opportunity right now to pass the strongest package of gun safety legislation in decades – maybe ever.”

Betsy Sweet, a lobbyist and former gubernatorial candidate, said in a fundraising email Wednesday morning that the coalition is looking to spend $20,000 a month in March, April and May on digital ads, phone calls, emails and a petition effort to win the support of Gov. Janet Mills and undecided lawmakers.


The coalition also is raising $50,000 for two rounds of direct mailers and an additional $125,000 to sustain a staff of eight people to organize rallies, lobbying days, canvassing events and other actions.

“This budget is ambitious, and I wouldn’t be asking you to chip in if this wasn’t a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Sweet said. “If we don’t do this now, I am not sure we ever can. Unlike the NRA, we don’t have millions of dollars from gun manufacturers to back us.”

A spokesperson for the coalition said the campaign had been planned since December and was not in response to an interim report from the governor’s commission investigating the Lewiston shooting. That report faulted the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s office for not using existing laws to take Card into custody before the shooting.

Republicans seized on the report Tuesday, saying it shows Maine’s laws could have adequately addressed the threat Card posed, if they had been fully utilized.


The Judiciary Committee held a public information session Wednesday afternoon about “firearms and domestic violence” with Francine Garland Stark, the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.


Republicans have claimed that a waiting period would make it more difficult for domestic violence victims to purchase a firearm for self-defense. But Stark has repeatedly pushed back on that claim, saying the presence of a firearm in a household with domestic violence makes it more dangerous for a victim.

Stark emphasized that point to lawmakers, saying that national research shows that the presence of firearms makes it five times more likely for a victim to be killed with a gun. She said the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, reported in 2001 that for every woman who used a firearm to kill an abusive intimate partner in self-defense, 83 women are killed by an intimate partner with a gun.

Stark also said that women who killed their intimate partner after long periods of abuse are often tried and convicted of murder. She said that 90% of the women in prison for killing a man had reported being abused and their sentences are often longer than those received by men who kill women.

Stark said arguments suggesting that women are safer when firearms are present represents a “strange paradox.”

“We’re setting women up to be less safe and more at risk of prosecution by somehow creating a public policy that indicates that, to be safer, you should be armed, because that’s not truthful,” she said. “And it’s, in fact, increasing their risk.”

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