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Expanding on Gov. Mills' proposal, Maine Democrats unveil package of gun safety bills

Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, is flanked by Rep. Maureen Terry (left), D-Gorham, and Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, as she discusses the gun safety bills Democrats introduced Feb. 28. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash (far right) says the bills are meant to prevent gun violence while protecting the constitutional right to bear arms.
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, is flanked by Rep. Maureen Terry (left), D-Gorham, and Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth (right), as she discusses the gun safety bills Democrats introduced Feb. 28. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash (far right) says the bills are meant to prevent gun violence while protecting the constitutional right to bear arms.

Democrats in the Maine Legislature on Wednesday introduced a slate of gun safety bills in response to the mass shootings in Lewiston last fall. The legislation complements parts of a sweeping proposal put forward by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills last week, while another advances a waiting period for firearm purchases that Democrats blocked just last year.

The package of legislation hits an assortment of policy areas while attempting to navigate the tricky politics of guns in a state rich in hunting tradition and gun ownership.

One bill builds on the governor's proposal to create a network of crisis centers for people experiencing mental health issues, while another creates a three-day waiting period for most firearm sales.

Taken together, the proposals try to inoculate Democrats from one claim by gun rights activists that has traditionally sunk gun safety legislation in Maine.

"We're not taking people's guns away," said Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

Senate President Troy Jackson repeated that line several times during a press conference at the State House on Wednesday.

Jackson has received high ratings from the NRA and the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, and he has long steered clear of bills that typically mobilize gun rights activists.

He says the Democrats' proposals are not about confiscating guns, or banning certain types, such as the assault-style weapon used by the Lewiston gunman in October.

"The idea was to get people the help they need, or make sure those people don't get the weapons beforehand," he said.

To that end, the bills the Democrats introduced center largely on preventing gun violence rather than the accessibility of guns.

That's true of a proposal by Sen. Anne Carney, of Cape Elizabeth, to add Maine to the group of 15 states that prohibit so-called bump stocks, a modification made to a semiautomatic firearm to make it fire almost as rapidly as an automatic weapon.

"So rather than listing specific types of devices that are prohibited, the amendment focuses on how the firearm and the device work together," Carney said.

Bump stock bans were first introduced by former President Donald Trump after a mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017 that resulted in the death of 60 people.

But that hasn't stopped some gun rights groups from challenging its legality under the U.S. Constitution. Such a challenge was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Other legal challenges may await the three-day waiting period bill sponsored by Sen. Peggy Rotundo, a Lewiston Democrat who described a city traumatized by a rampage that killed 18 people and wounded 13 others.

"I want to say that I come from a community with broken hearts and shattered lives. I come from a community where many people are still afraid to go out in public," she said.

But Sen. Matt Harrington, a Republican from Sanford, questioned the efficacy of the Democrats' bills.

"The many pieces of legislation they're bringing forward post-Lewiston, none of these proposals would have made a bit of difference in that incident," he said.

Harrington added that the waiting period proposal shouldn't even be allowed under the Legislature's rules because lawmakers killed a similar bill just last year.

Even the proposal by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross centering on mental health initiatives — a frequently cited priority for Republicans — doesn't have adequate funding in his view.

"I think we definitely need to do more around mental health. I think initially looking at the crisis centers, I'd probably be supportive of that. I don't think it goes far enough," he said.

While Republicans have yet to coalesce this session around mental health initiatives that might prevent gun violence, Harrington suggested that some aspects of proposals by Gov. Janet Mills and Speaker Talbot Ross might garner some GOP support.

David Trahan, director for the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, had a similar assessment.

"The mental health components of that (bill), some of that we really like," Trahan said. "So I'm not going to criticize that component of it."

But Trahan says his organization will fight the waiting period proposal, predicting that it will be engulfed in the legal challenges to laws passed by 11 other states, including a recent one in Colorado.

"There's no doubt in my mind, if they pass that law, it will be challenged in Maine," he said.

The proposal, like the entire package of gun safety legislation introduced Wednesday, must become law first.

That will largely depend on Gov. Mills, who responded to the proposals by issuing a noncommittal written statement through her spokesperson.

"The Governor recognizes that there is a strong and diverse set of perspectives on both sides of the aisle about how we can improve public safety in Maine," the statement read. "She welcomes a robust, respectful, and collaborative discussion about steps we can take to better protect Maine people, and she believes it is critical we take action. She looks forward to these discussions and remains focused on trying to advance her legislation, which includes measures that represent meaningful progress, are true to Maine’s culture and longstanding traditions, and will better protect public safety."

While Democrats control the Legislature, they don't have the votes on their own to override a veto by the governor.

Mills will face some pressure from gun safety groups, which widely praised the slate of legislation even though it doesn't include an assault weapons ban — a priority for activists.

Senate President Troy Jackson said such a ban would've been too difficult and possibly lose support from Democrats.

"I think if we can do these bills, we have a lot better chance to help people that are in crisis," he said.

And Jackson says that more gun safety proposals may be forthcoming depending on the findings of a state commission investigating the Lewiston shootings.

The commission is expected to release a preliminary report in early April, which is just a few weeks before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year.

Public hearings on the current slate of proposals will begin next week.

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