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Gun control bills draw large numbers of supporters and opponents to State House

Students march on the State Capitol steps during the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence protest in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, April 3, 2023.
George Walker IV
Students march on the State Capitol steps during the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence protest in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, April 3, 2023.

AUGUSTA – State lawmakers heard hours of testimony on Monday on several gun control proposals that, if recent history holds, could face an uphill battle in the full Legislature.

Gun control advocates and opponents turned out in large numbers to testify on proposals to expand Maine's background check requirement and to require buyers to wait 72 hours before taking possession of a firearm.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland said her background checks bill would close what she says is a private gun sales loophole that makes it easier for firearms from Maine to end up in the hands of criminals here and in other states. Unlike a 2016 referendum rejected by voters, Talbot Ross said her bill would exempt gun loans between family members. An amended version of her bill would also specify that individuals who violate the proposed law would be guilty of a civil offense, not a criminal violation.

Anticipating constitutional arguments from opponents, Talbot Ross pointed out that federally licensed dealers are already required to conduct background checks.

“Those background checks are constitutional,” Talbot Ross told members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “So LD 168 simply extends those requirements to persons who transact private, unlicensed transactions of firearms. If enacted, LD 168 will withstand a constitutional challenge."

But opponents did raise constitutional concerns and questioned whether such restrictions would deter crime and are unenforceable without a gun registration system – something that Talbot Ross and other opponents said they were not proposing.

“Universal background checks target law-abiding citizens – criminals will violate these laws,” said Justin Davis with the National Rifle Association.

Another bill, L.D. 60, would require gun buyers to wait 72 hours before taking possession of a firearm. Nine states plus Washington, D.C., impose a waiting period on some firearm purchases. And bill sponsor Rep. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said the measure could be particularly effective in deterring suicides in Maine. According to recent figures compiled by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 86% of the 154 firearms deaths in Maine in 2020 were suicides.

“Suicides by firearm will continue as long as people in crisis have easy access to firearms,” Craven said.

But Laura Parker, president of the group Gun Owners of Maine, told a committee that it could put people in danger.

"Requiring law-abiding Mainers to wait 72 hours does nothing to take guns out of the hands of criminals,” Parker said. “In fact, it impedes, for example, a woman from looking to purchase a firearm for self-defense from doing so in a timely fashion. A man bent on perpetrating violence against her will not submit himself to the law to why should we as a state prohibit her from protecting herself.”

The bills are being heard at a time when recent mass shootings – including the deaths of three children and several adults at a Tennessee private school – have once again thrust the issue back into the political limelight. But Democrats in Congress have been unable to pass more sweeping gun control measures – such as universal background checks, an assault weapons ban or limits on magazine capacity – even when they controlled both the House and Senate. And with Republicans holding the majority in the House, there is little chance that major gun bills will emerge from Congress.

Maine has high rates of gun ownership as well as low crime rates. Maine’s suicide rate ranks in the middle of the states, according to federal data.

Previous attempts to expand background checks or pass sweeping gun control bills have failed in the Maine Legislature because of opposition from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers from rural areas. And Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has previously cited Maine voters' rejection of the 2016 referendum as a reason why she did not support expanding background checks.