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Angus King proposes limits on semi-automatic guns, magazine capacity after Lewiston shooting

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on 'Policy Response to Russian Interference in the 2016 U.S. Elections' on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Washington.
Andrew Harnik
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on 'Policy Response to Russian Interference in the 2016 U.S. Elections' on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Washington.

Maine Sen. Angus King and a New Mexico Democrat are introducing legislation that they say will target the deadly, high-capacity guns often used by mass shooters but that won't infringe on 2nd Amendment rights.

The bill quickly ran into opposition from some gun owners' rights groups, however. And the sponsors have yet to pick up any endorsements from Republican Senate colleagues, highlighting the challenge of getting gun control measures through a deeply polarized Congress.

King announced the bill on Thursday roughly one month after a gunman killed 18 people and injured 13 others in Lewiston with a high-capacity, semi-automatic rifle. King, who is an independent, is co-sponsoring the bill with Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

The bill would would limit the number of rounds in a gun magazine and require gas-operated, semi-automatic firearms to have permanent or fixed magazines to prevent shooters from rapidly reloading.

Unlike other proposed assault weapons bans that he opposed, King said their bill focuses on the mechanisms that can make some semi-automatic guns so deadly rather than their appearance or model numbers.

The bill would also make it illegal to make certain modifications to semi-automatic guns. But it would exempt certain types of common gun used by hunters and for self-defense, such as semi-automatic shotguns and handguns that operate with a recoil mechanism.

During a video press conference, King and Heinrich said they have studied the constitutional concerns raised about past gun control measures and they are confident their bill will pass the test.

The pointed out that the federal government already bans some types of dangerous firearms, such as fully automatic machine guns. And President Trump, a Republican, banned so-called "bump stocks," which are add-on devices that allow semi-automatic guns to fire even more rapidly. The U.S. Supreme Court plans to take up a case challenging the constitutionality of ban on bump stocks.

"The key here is in the midst of a mass shooting, it's when the shooter needs to re-load that there's an opportunity either for people to escape or for first responders or for people in the room to disarm the shooter," King said during the press conference. "But if there's not lapse in the firing, that can't happen."

Police found a high-capacity, semi-automatic AR-10 rifle made by Ruger in the car of the Lewiston gunman, Robert R. Card II. King told reporters on Thursday that the gunman had reportedly duct-taped two large-capacity magazines together so that when one was depleted, he could quickly flip to the next magazine.

Heinrich, who is a gun owner and avid hunter, said he hopes the bill's focus on the mechanisms that make some semi-automatic guns so lethal will win bipartisan support.

"I firmly believe our families and children should feel safe when they go to a bowling alley, when they enter the classroom or when they go to a place of worship," Heinrich said. "They shouldn't have to live in fear that they might fall victim to the next mass shooting tragedy. And I refuse to accept the premise that Democrats and Republicans or gun safety advocates and gun owners are so divided that we can't take common-sense actions that save lives."

In addition to Heinrich, King's office said the bill has two other co-sponsors so far: Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Michael Bennett of Colorado.

No Republicans have signed on so far, however. And Collins — a moderate Republican who has supported some gun control measures in the past but opposed others — has yet to endorse the bill.

A spokesperson for Collins said the senator "recognizes the time and effort that went into developing this proposal . . . and she will carefully consider it."

"Senator Collins believes that there is a crime and violence problem in this country and that Congress should join with the states and law enforcement in trying to address it," Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said in a statement. "She will continue to focus on measures that could help save lives, including legislation that could help keep firearms out of the hands of criminals, and also people who are suffering from mental illness that could cause them to be a danger to themselves and others. She is currently drafting legislation that would direct the military to fully utilize state crisis intervention laws."

The proposal quickly encountered skepticism or opposition from gun owners' rights groups, however.

"Sen. King's legislation has a slim chance of getting out of Congress and an even slimmer chance of getting through the Supreme Court," said David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, a gun owners' rights group with major political influence at the State House in Augusta.

Trahan sees King's bill as the latest, potentially unconstitutional push for policies that likely won't prohibit mass shootings. Instead, Trahan said he has been talking with Collins' office about improving information sharing between police in different states and the military.

That's because the Lewiston gunman reportedly spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital in New York and was banned by his U.S. Army Reserve unit in Maine from possessing military weapons because of his increasing paranoia and aggressive behavior. His family also expressed concerns about his deteriorating mental health and access to guns.

But police in neither Maine nor New York sought to use their "red" or "yellow flag" laws to remove his access to guns. Trahan was a key negotiator in passing Maine's "yellow flag" law, which requires police to initiate the process to confiscate guns but also requires a medical professional to agree the person poses a danger.

"So we are going to focus all of our organization's credibility and energy working with Collins and people within the state of Maine to fix the system that we believe failed," Trahan said. "And it failed all over the place: it failed in the military, it failed in New York and it failed in Maine."

The National Rifle Association blasted the bill on Thursday as well.

"This legislation blatantly violates the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court rulings by banning the very types of firearms and magazines most often utilized by Americans for defending themselves and their families," Randy Kozuch, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. "This bill unjustly and improperly places the full burden of the law on law-abiding residents, while doing nothing to take guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals."

Gun control bills have faced difficult if not impossible odds in Congress in recent years despite the enormous death toll inflicted by gun violence and the mass shooting trend.

A bill passed last year tweaked background check laws and encouraged states to set up red or yellow flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals. But proposals to impose universal background checks on all gun sales, to ban assault-style weapons and to ban high-capacity magazines have repeatedly failed over the past decade despite polls showing strong, bipartisan voters support for some of those measures.

GIFFORDS, the national gun safety organization spearheaded by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, praised the bill from Heinrich and King. Giffords was severely injured during a mass shooting in her district. Her husband, former astronaut and Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, is among the four co-sponsors of the bill.

"Far too often, certain gas-operated semiautomatic long guns are used to carry out horrific public attacks," Adzi Vokhiwa, federal affairs director for GIFFORDS, said in a statement. "These weapons are even more lethal when paired with a large capacity magazine to increase the amount of ammunition ready to fire without reloading and devices to increase the rate of fire like bump stocks. The American people are crying out for Congress to put forth innovative ideas that save lives, and Senator Heinrich has answered the call by introducing the Gas-Operated Semi-Automatic Firearms Exclusion Act to keep deadly devices out of the wrong hands."

Immediately after the shooting, Lewiston resident and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-District 2, announced that he would no longer oppose efforts to ban assault-style weapons. Golden has yet to release any proposals or endorse specific bills.