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Advocates Seek Ballot Measure to Require Background Checks for All Maine Gun Sales

Richardson Family
Judi and Wayne Richardson, holding a photo of their daughter Darien.

The parents of a young woman who died after being shot in a home invasion in Portland five years ago are taking their crusade to address gun violence to the ballot box in Maine.

Judi and Wayne Richardson have filed an application for a citizens' initiative that would require criminal background checks on all gun sales. Backed by a national gun control organization, other Maine parents, a police chief and a domestic violence advocate, the couple hopes to raise enough signatures to qualify the measure for the 2016 ballot.

Frustrated by what they view as inaction at the state and federal level to crack down on gun violence, the Richardsons did something Monday morning that they never thought they'd do. With the support of the Maine chapter of a national group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, they went to the secretary of state's office and took the first steps toward launching a statewide referendum on background checks for gun sales.

Currently, only gun sales through licensed dealers are required to undergo background checks. Private sales online, at gun shows and in publications such as Uncle Henry's are excluded.

The proposed initiative would close that loophole. It does include some exceptions from the background check requirement for transfers between family members, for hunting and for self defense.

Credit Richardson Family
Richardson Family
The Richardsons submit paperwork with the Maine secretary of state's office.

Life for the Richardsons was upended in 2010 when their 25-year-old daughter Darien was shot in her Portland apartment while she slept. She initially survived the attack and was eventually discharged from the hospital, but died several weeks later of complications from a blood clot.

"It devastated us completely," says Judi Richardson. "And after awhile we started to meet other people that were victims of gun violence and it just seemed right for us to honor her memory and share her story and work to reduce gun violence, because it's becoming epidemic in our country."

Wayne Richardson says one reason Darien's murder remains unsolved is that the gun used in her home invasion was transferred, without a background check, at a gun show.

They know this because about a month after Darien's death, a gun was recovered from a second homicide. Ballistics showed it was the same gun used to shoot Darien.

Richardson says police were then able to trace it back to its original buyer. But the investigation stalled.

"The original buyer sold it at a gun show and he doesn't recall the person who he sold it to," he says. "There's no paperwork. No background check. So, it was pretty much a dead end for the police department at that point."

Credit Richardson Family
Richardson Family
Darien Richardson

The Richardsons say they know the initiative won't stop all gun violence. Those intent on committing crimes will still be able to buy and trade guns under the radar. But they say making gun buyers complete their sales at a licensed gun dealer for the purpose of a background check is a simple step that will save lives. And, they say, the process only takes a few minutes.

"This here is - you have to fill this out," says licensed gun dealer John Reid, explaining the process to Guage Walstrom of Wiscasset at a gun show at the Augusta Civic Center on Sunday. "This says county, not country."

Walstrom is buying a Smith and Wesson 9mm. Since Reid is selling him the gun, he asks him to undergo a background check. First, he has to answer a series of questions.

"And it's pretty basic," Reid says. "Are you a fugitive? Have you ever been convicted of domestic violence? Have you ever been dishonorably discharged from the military? Are you addicted to drugs? Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective?"

Walstrom answers "no" to the questions, provides his date of birth and Social Security number and then Reid calls in the information to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Minutes later he has an answer: He can proceed with the sale.

Walstrom says he doesn't object to the process. In fact, at least one poll has shown that 80 percent of Mainers support background checks. Bucksport Police Chief Sean Geagan is one of them.

"You can't, obviously, get everyone to abide by the law, but it's a step in the right direction to try to deter the people who don't have the right to possess a handgun," he says. "At least they know if they do it they're gonna have to go through the background and I think, upfront, that may deter a lot of people from doing it."

Supporters of the Maine initiative say, on average, 88 Americans are killed by gun violence every day. But they say in states that have taken steps to tighten background checks, gun violence has decreased, especially among intimate partners.

Once their initiative is cleared for circulation, Maine Moms Demand Action will have until Jan. 22 to collect at least 61,000 valid signatures to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.