AUGUSTA, Maine - In the wake of the recent Orlando shootings, gun legislation continues to dominate the headlines in Washington D.C., and in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage is campaigning hard to defeat a fall ballot question that would require criminal background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm through a private sale.
During a well-attended and supportive town meeting event in Richmond Wednesday evening, LePage said the focus of the gun debate is misdirected. But the governor's critics say he has waffled on gun control and needs to check his facts.
For 24 hours, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives staged a sit-in to protest the Republican majority's refusal to consider gun control legislation. As the demonstration ended, Democratic 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree said she was glad she and her seat-mates had taken a stand against Republican leaders who she says are ignoring the gun issue.
"You know, we're a long way from figuring out how do we ensure more gun safety in this country, how do we reduce the number of incidents like the tragedy in Orlando and Sandy Hook?" Pingree says. "But to not have any dialogue - it's just wrong to have such a blockade and not be able to discuss it."
But there's at least one Republican leader who has a lot to say about the gun safety issue: Gov. Paul LePage says most of the people talking in Washington and Augusta misperceived the issue.
"One thing we do wrong here is that we want to go after everyone who has a gun, instead of going after everyone who shouldn't have a gun," LePage said.
LePage said the real issues that drive gun violence in the United States are mental illness and terrorism. Until policy makers deal with those, the governor said, discussion of gun control is unnecessary even after a tragedy like the one in Orlando.
"If you're not going to look at it comprehensively, then I can't make excuses for people having guns," LePage said. "Do I feel bad for those people? It's heart-wrenching. Just like a two-year-old who's at a park, puts his feet in the water and he dies from an alligator. Do we eradicate all alligators?"
LePage also laid out his arguments against a fall ballot question that would require criminal background checks for individuals who purchase guns through a private sale, such as those at gun shows or through classified ads.
During the Richmond event -- and in his weekly radio address -- the governor made a number of points that are now being challenged by his critics. Chief among them are that background checks are unconstitutional, and that billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and "out-of-state liberals" are trying to buy a gun ban in Maine.
"The fact of the matter is that on our campaign staff we have a broad bipartisan group of Republicans, Democrats and independents, we've signed up thousands and thousands of supporters," says Bobby Reynolds, a former staffer for Sen. Susan Collins who's now deputy campaign manager for Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership.
The group recently received a $3 million contribution from a Bloomberg non-profit organization. Not only is the Maine movement home-grown and broad-based, Reynolds says that, contrary to what LePage alleges, the Maine ballot question is constitutional. He cites a 2007 opinion written by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia that formed the basis of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that background checks are constitutional.
Furthermore, Reynolds says LePage himself seemed to support background checks when he answered this question during a WCSH debate in 2014.
Moderator Pat Callaghan: "Private sales of guns as opposed to buying from a gun dealer, should there be background checks?"
Gov. LePage: "Well, we'd have to change the Maine Constitution, and I'm willing to do that if we can get a referendum to pass it."
Peter Steele, the governor's communications director, says Reynolds had taken LePage's response out of context. He says what the governor was saying was that if the voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring background checks, he would support it.