Days after the most recent school shooting in Nashville, Democratic lawmakers in Augusta introduced legislation on Monday that would create a waiting period to purchase a gun and criminal background checks for private sales and gun shows.
“I can’t believe I have to say the words, ‘Please do something so my kids aren’t killed at school,’” Brunswick resident Hillary Shende told lawmakers.
In response, the Maine Republican Party, in collaboration with the National Rifle Association, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and the Gun Owners of Maine, mobilized gun owners to travel to the Maine State House to testify against the bills.
While the state has yet to see a mass shooting, Maine’s lax gun laws are leading to an intolerable number of suicides and domestic homicides, numerous supporters of the legislation, including several law enforcement officers, expressed at the public hearing.
“Almost 5,000 Maine high school students attempted suicide in 2021. Fifty-six percent of all suicides in Maine that year involved the use of a firearm,” said House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) in testimony before the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
She added, “Private sales unaccompanied by required background checks provided a loophole for young people who could not buy firearms from dealers who are presently licensed.”
Talbot Ross is the sponsor of LD 168, which would require criminal background checks of gun buyers in private sales and at gun shows. The bill would make it a civil offense under penalty of up to $1,000 to knowingly sell, transfer or exchange a firearm without a background check.
“Roughly 80% of guns used in criminal activity are obtained from private sellers in states like Maine that do not require background checks,” she explained. “From 2017 to 2021, 4,594 crime guns were bought in Maine, 65% of which were found in other cities.”
The speaker mentioned the worst mass shooting in Canada, which occurred in Nova Scotia in 2020, during which 22 people were murdered. The shooter purchased three semi-automatic rifles in Houlton through private purchases.
“A simple background check would have prevented that sale and transfer, but it was not required under Maine law,” Talbot Ross said. “LD 168 will not eradicate gun violence or suicide by firearm. But it will decrease the number of deadly weapons being placed in the hands of people with extensive criminal records or serious mental health issues through unchecked private sales.”
A similar bill, LD 22 sponsored by Sen. Anne Carney (D-Cumberland), would prohibit the sale or transfer of a firearm to a person who is prohibited from owning a firearm.
Rep. Margaret Craven (D-Lewiston) introduced LD 60, which proposes a 72-hour waiting period between a purchase of a firearm and its delivery. It calls for civil violations of $200 to $500 for the first violation and a $500 to $1,000 fine for a subsequent violation.
“In 2007, I sponsored a very similar bill for a young mother who was heartbroken after her 18-year-old son committed suicide,” Craven said. “He had walked into Walmart, bought a gun and ammunition and went straight home and shot himself. She told me that all she could think about was if she only knew the despair that he was suffering, maybe she could have been able to intervene.”
She added, “Suicides by firearm will continue as long as people in crisis have easy access to firearms.”
In January, in the wake of a mass shooting on the eve of Lunar New Year when 11 people were murdered, President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass legislation banning assault weapons. Twenty-seven Senate Democrats, along with Maine independent Sen. Angus King, responded by signing onto legislation to ban high-capacity magazines, which can be used on the type of semi-automatic firearm that is typically used in most mass shootings.
At the state level, where a Democratic majority controls the Legislature and governor’s office, Maine lawmakers are currently pursuing narrower reforms.
Several Republican lawmakers spoke out on Tuesday against the need for gun safety reforms, suggesting that because criminals would not heed the law, any attempt at regulation would not work. Others seemingly brushed off increasing U.S. gun violence as an innate aspect of human nature.
“You can call it man’s inhumanity towards man,” said Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin).
But the source of the increase is actually related to the prevalence of guns in the U.S.. Americans held an average of 120.5 firearms per 100 people in 2017, the highest rate in the world by a factor of more than two. This has led to guns recently becoming the number one cause of death for American children, surpassing motor vehicle deaths.
The hearing came exactly a week after three young children and three adults were killed by a shooter in Nashville, Tennessee.
When asked by a Republican member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Rep. Robert Nutting of Oakland, if the prevalence of guns in Maine explained the state’s relatively low crime rate, Brakey agreed. He did not mention other potential demographic explanations for the state’s crime rate such as age, income and access to education.
“The saying is that an armed society is a polite society,” Brakey said.
It is unclear what Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ appetite for gun safety legislation will be this session. The governor and her veto pen will ultimately control what becomes law, assuming there will not be enough bipartisan support to override any vetoes.
Mills has a record of being relatively weak on gun safety. Though the National Rifle Association endorsed her opponent in the latest gubernatorial race, she only received a “C” grade from the infamous gun lobby and an “A” grade from local pro-gun Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM). In 2019, she worked closely with SAM to narrow the scope of a bill that initially sought to allow courts to order a person found dangerous to temporarily surrender firearms. The legislation Mills ultimately signed tied the surrendering of guns to a mental health evaluation.