PORTLAND, Maine - Gun control activist Gabrielle Giffords kicked off a nine-state tour, beginning in Portland Tuesday, to promote tougher gun laws. The former Democratic Arizona congresswoman - herself a victim of gun violence - is asking law enforcement officials and domestic violence prevention advocates to help her bring about the change she says is needed to protect women and children.
In January 2011 a gunman nearly ended Gabrielle Giffords' life at a political rally near Tucson. Nearly four years later, the effects of that bullet to the head are still visible. Giffords walks with the aid of a cane and her speech has been affected. But her message is clear.
"Dangerous people with guns are a threat to women - criminals with guns, stalkers with guns, abusers with guns," Giffords said. "That makes gun violence a women's issue."
Giffords addressed a forum of law enforcement officials, community activists and legal professionals - most of them women - at the University of Southern Maine's Portland campus. It's the first stop on what's being billed as the "Protect All Women Tour," touching down in nine states over eight days.
Giffords' advocacy group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, describes guns and domestic violence as "a lethal mix,'' and calls for women to lead the way. "Together we can win elections, together we can change our laws," she said.
"Domestic violence and appropriate use of guns and management of guns is crucial to keeping women alive, it's just that simple," said Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Colpitts said abuse victims are more than five times more likely to be killed if the aggressor has access to a gun, while 94 percent of female murder victims are killed by a man they know.
"We simply have to begin to understand that, if you're going to take a strong stand on domestic violence, you have to take a strong stance on making sure that people at risk of committing that violence don't have guns easily available," Colpitts said.
She said that strong position should include expanding background checks and prohibiting convicted stalkers and domestic abusers from possessing a firearm.
Colpitts laments the fact that a bill last year to strengthen background checks for gun sales failed to become law after Gov. LePage vetoed it.
Todd Tolhurst, president of Gun Owners of Maine, says he agrees with gun control advocates on one thing:
"We actually agree with Ms. Giffords that domestic violence is a very serious and real problem," Tolhurst says. "Where we disagree is that we believe it deserves a very serious and real response. We don't believe that making it more difficult for victims of domestic abuse to defend themselves and their children from their abusers makes them safer. We believe it puts them at greater risk."
Tolhurst points out that background checks for licensed gun dealers are already mandatory under a measure passed in 1996 called the Lautenberg Amendment, which prohibits those convicted of domestic violence from having guns. "The real purpose of these so-called universal background checks is to ban private sales of firearms," Tolhurst says. "We don't support this."
But it's private gun sales that are a big concern for Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, also in attendance at the Gabrielle Giffords' event. He says private "under the radar" firearms transactions make it harder to track ownership of a weapon, should that weapon end up being used in a crime. For example, he says a single handgun recovered by Portland police was found to have been used in two separate 2010 homicides, which occured months apart.
"There's no background check on that, there's no way to backtrack where that weapon came from," Sauschuck says. "We recovered a firearm, but were unable to use that as a key investigative tool to bring justice."
Following the forum in Portland, Gabrielle Giffords headed next for New Hampshire. After that she's visiting seven more states, and winds up her trip in Seattle later this month.