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Janet Mills' gun proposals draw muted response from Maine lawmakers

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills walks to the House Chamber prior to delivering her State of the State address, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. She focused on public safety, gun violence and extreme weather events. The state remains on the mend from its deadliest mass shooting and is rebuilding following devastating coastal storms.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills walks to the House Chamber prior to delivering her State of the State address, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. She focused on public safety, gun violence and extreme weather events. The state remains on the mend from its deadliest mass shooting and is rebuilding following devastating coastal storms.

Gov. Janet Mills used her State of the State address on Tuesday to reset the debate over gun violence and outline a slate of proposals following the worst mass shooting in state history last fall. In doing so, she attempted to strike a balance between responding to calls for stronger gun safety and Maine's long tradition of enacting permissive gun laws. The reaction, so far, has been reserved.

Maine politicians often take great care to calibrate their rhetoric on gun violence, if they talk about it all. And on Tuesday, Mills spent roughly 40 minutes doing exactly that as she tried to navigate an issue that can quickly divide and alienate Maine residents.

At one point the governor suggested that there's "some truth" to the oft-used argument from gun rights activists that people who want to commit violence will always find a way to do so.

"But boy, the idea that we shouldn't make laws, change policies just because they'll be broken creates a cynical attitude that certain bad things are just inevitable, we can't do anything about it," she said.

Mills' policy proposals attempt to toe a similar line by expanding background checks to private and advertised gun sales, creating a network of crisis prevention centers and tweaking Maine's extreme risk protection order law.

Toward the end of her speech, Mills acknowledged her proposals won't please everyone.

"But violence is not a simple problem and the remedy is not a simple, single measure," she said. "And these proposals represent progress and they do not trample on anybody's rights."

The proposals are a response to the Lewiston shootings that claimed the lives of 18 people. They're also a slight shift for Mills, who has won favor with gun rights organizations for previously opposing gun control measures backed by national groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety.

"She's been very measured compared to the gun control activists and what they'd like to do," said David Trahan, the director of the Sportman's Alliance of Maine, an influential gun rights group that assigns letter grades to Maine politicians based on their votes on firearms, conservation and hunting and fishing legislation.

While he stopped short of endorsing the governor's proposals, Trahan says he likes that they are tailored to Maine, not simply model legislation from national gun control groups.

"And I like that approach. We're not California, we're not New York. Our culture here is different," he said.

SAM has long been a player in firearms legislation, including five years ago, when Trahan played a key role in negotiating Maine's so-called yellow flag law, a version of an extreme risk protection order law that creates a process to confiscate firearms from a person who has been deemed a danger to themselves or others.

The governor has proposed modifying the law by giving police the opportunity to seek a judge's approval to take a person into custody. But this would not change the steps required to begin the weapon confiscation process, and Trahan says that protects a person's due process rights.

"What I like about the governor's approach is she's not changing any of the due process standards. They're still highest in the country when you take a person's liberty away," he said. "From what I see, she's trying to improve the law, not change it into red flag, and that's where the rubber hits the road."

Trahan also credited the governor for her proposal to create a statewide network of crisis prevention centers.

The Maine Gun Safety Coalition described the proposal as a good starting point for negotiations, and applauded the governor's plan to expand background checks to weapon sales at gun shows and those advertised on Facebook or Uncle Henry's.

"In general, I thought that last night was a really great starting point," says Nacole Palmer, head of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, a group whose priorities include waiting periods for firearms sales, universal background checks, an assault weapons ban and moving Maine's yellow flag law closer to the red flag laws used in more than 20 other states.

The governor did not propose an assault weapons ban or a waiting period, but met the Gun Safety Coalition halfway on background checks.

Palmer says the background check expansion is important, but she worries that the changes to the yellow flag law will create another step in a weapons confiscation process that critics, including some law enforcement, say is too cumbersome.

"That could add another possible layer when what could make our communities safer, and the job of law enforcement in dealing with extremely dangerous situations and individuals easier, would not be to add another layer," she said.

Palmer hopes enough state lawmakers will share that view. So far, it's unclear whether they do.

Democrats control the Legislature, and caucus leaders steered clear of taking firm positions on the governor's proposals. Meanwhile, some Republicans were critical of the background check expansion.

A spokesperson for the governor says the proposals are expected to be packaged as one bill that will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.