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Group Submits Signatures to Put Gun Background Check Measure on Ballot

AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of a citizen initiative requiring criminal background checks for all private gun sales in the state moved forward Tuesday.

Maine Moms Demand Action returned petitions carrying more than 85,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office, in hopes of getting the issue on the November ballot.

But while the proposed law would change the loophole on paper, proponents acknowledge that it may prove difficult to enforce.

Six years after her daughter died in a Portland home invasion, little has changed for Judi Richardson, who deals with the pain of her loss daily. Her daughter’s killer has still not been apprehended, and she has a theory as to why.

“Because the gun used to kill her was bought at a private sale, no background check, no questions asked, no records kept,” Richardson says. “This dangerous loophole allowed the gun to get in the hands of criminals.”

Richardson was at the State House to deliver signatures to the secretary of state’s office. She and other supporters are hoping to ask voters to approve a measure that would require criminal checks in gun purchases between private parties.

Current Maine law requires gun dealers to perform those checks as part of every sale, but that does not apply to private individuals who sell guns to each other, or at gun shows.

South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins says the so-called gun show loophole puts all Mainers at risk.

“Anywhere there is a loophole that has to do with public safety, it is in our best interests as a state and as a country to look at it and to close these loopholes to make it safer for everyone,” Googins says.

Under the proposal, private parties would be required to meet with a licensed firearm dealer, who would conduct the background check prior to a sale. There are a few exceptions in the language of the proposed law, including one addressing transfers between family members.

First-time violations under the proposal would be punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. The fine would more than double under a second offense that also carries provisions for a prison sentence of up to five years.

The question being raised by some lawmakers, however, is how will law enforcement officials know when illegal private transactions have taken place?

“I don’t know,” says former Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Ray “Bucky” Owen, who says he supports the initiative but admits that enforcement could be challenging. “That’s a real toughy for me because I’m not into the law enforcement component, but I do believe that doing anything that we can to slow down or inhibit the movement of firearms to inappropriate people, we should be doing.”

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky shares that concern. A Brunswick Democrat and longtime member of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Gerzofsky worries that the enforcement component could be a problem for lawmakers and voters.

“I don’t know how we would enforce private sales such as you or I buying or selling a gun amongst ourselves,” Gerzofsky says. “How anybody would know about it or how that would be billed, I would have to look at the details at how they plan on enforcing it and actually implementing it.”

As of last August, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, there were only 10 states that required criminal background checks for all gun sales.

The petitions delivered Tuesday will now be reviewed by the secretary of state’s office, which must validate at least 61,123 in order to approve the question for the fall ballot. The Legislature also has the option of acting on the proposal itself.