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Culture Clash: Mainers Takes Sides in Gun Control Referendum

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, disabled by a gunshot wound in 2012, was in Portland Wednesday to pitch Question 3 on the Maine ballot in November — that’s the measure that would require background checks for gun sales.

It’s the latest publicity event in the contentious debate over gun rights in Maine, a state where hunting is part of the culture in the rural north and west, and where calls for gun control are more popular in the south.

Giffords is something of a celebrity in the gun control movement, but here in Maine, it’s the story of Judi and Wayne Richardson that resonates with gun control supporters. With Giffords at her side, Judi Richardson recounted how her daughter Darien was fatally wounded by gunshot after a 2010 home invasion in Portland.

“We learned from the police that the gun, a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, was recovered in another homicide right here in Portland. We learned that even though they recovered the gun, that the investigation was stalled because it was sold through a private sale at a gun show. That’s because in Maine, these kinds of purchases, they don’t have to get a criminal background check,” she says.

Questions 3’s backers say that’s the loophole they want to close. In the absence of federal background checks for sales at gun shows and for other private sales, such as through Uncle Henry’s classified advertisements, they say the underground gun trade is flourishing.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, who grew up hunting in Madrid, Maine, says background checks are a useful tool that have worked in other states.

“They’ve seen a drastic decrease in domestic violence-related fatal shootings. And those account for more than half the homicides we have in our state,” he says. “I would tell you drastic decreases in the number of police officers that are fatally shot in the line of duty, drastic decreases in the amount of gun trafficking that happens in on those communities, drastic decreases in the number of mass shootings in those communities. That seems like a no-brainer to me.”

Sauschuck was relying, in part, on research by Everytown for Gun Safety, a political action committee bankrolled by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that shows that domestic violence related gun deaths and law enforcement gun deaths were reduced by background checks. In addition, an independent, peer-reviewed study in 2009 found that more regulation of private sales reduced criminal gun trafficking in individual states.

The membership of the Maine Police Chiefs Association agrees that Question 3 will reduce gun crime in Maine, and has endorsed the measure. But that doesn’t mean all in law enforcement think it’s a no-brainer.

‘You need to know that sheriffs across Maine are coming together to oppose Question 3,” says Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson.

Samson is one of about a dozen sheriffs from around the state who participated in a television ad, sponsored by the National Rifle Association, to enumerate the basic arguments against the proposal.

“Question 3 is poorly written. It is being pushed by a New York billionaire who does not care about Maine,” the ad says. “Question 3 does not stop criminals from getting guns. Question 3 would send law-abiding Mainers to jail.”

Some of those arguments have been used for years against gun control measures around the nation. But opponents of Question 3 are deploying some that are specific to Maine. They point out that the measure goes beyond a simple check to prevent gun sales to convicted felons or those with documented, severe mental illness.

It also includes language they say will erode 2nd Amendment rights in subtle ways, by requiring background checks, for instance, when a hunter loans a rifle to another for use outside of the owners’ presence.

George Smith, a former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, says the measure displays a lack of respect for the state’s hunting culture.

“I hate laws that makes us all violators. Most people are just not going to pay attention to that transfers [issue] … and the other thing they keep emphasizing is that there are exceptions for family members. Well, that’s true, but there’s no exceptions for my hunting buddies, most of which are not family members.”

The state’s warden service says the measure is written in a way that will be difficult or impossible to enforce. And opponents are also working to stoke resentment against interference by Bloomberg, who’s poured millions of dollars into gun control efforts around the nation, including in Maine.

“Citizen initiatives are no way to write laws, particularly when written by nanny-state elitists from a region of a state where forests are made of pavement and concrete and whose opinions of gun ownership is shaped by drug dealers, terrorists and inner-city crime,” says David Trahan, the Sportsman’s Alliance’s current executive director.

Trahan was introducing the national legislative policy chief for the NRA, which so far has contributed about $400,000 to the effort to defeat Question 3. That contrasts with more than $2.5 million contributed by Bloomberg’s group. Both are expected to ramp up their campaign outreach in the few weeks left before voters head to the polls.