Maine Democrats fail in initial try to push gun control through House

Gun Rights

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives defeated a measure Tuesday to enshrine a 72-hour waiting period before gun purchases.

Maine sticks out nationally as a Democratic-controlled state with a strong hunting culture that combines loose gun laws and  high levels of gun ownership with lower levels of gun mortality, although federal data from 2021 showed the latter was the highest in New England. Voters in 2016 rejected a referendum on mandatory background checks on private gun sales.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, is proposing a similar law this year. The waiting period bill from Rep. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, which would have Maine join seven states with similar laws, was a test to see whether the party could display unity on the fraught issue.

But Republicans and a small number of Democrats defeated the waiting period bill in a 73-69 vote on Tuesday evening. It goes to the Senate for additional votes. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has taken a dim view of gun control recently.

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House Republicans echoed each other in opposing the bill Tuesday, calling the idea unconstitutional and arguing national data has found very few people commit suicide directly after buying a gun. Rep. James White, R-Guilford, a gunsmith, said he has never sold a firearm to someone who then used it to commit a violent act,

“It disrespects the rights of our constituents,” Rep. Donald Ardell, R-Monticello, said of the bill.

Craven cited data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention showing 154 people died by gunshot wounds in 2022, with 132 suicides among the total.

“This is too many, and what does it say about the society we live in,” Craven said, with several Democrats arguing the bill could also help prevent domestic violence.

Under the bill, a seller who violates the 72-hour waiting period provision would face a fine of between $200 to $500 for a first offense and a fine ranging from $500 to $1,000 for a repeat offense. An amendment removed a portion requiring a firearms dealer to conduct a national instant criminal background check, with federal dealers already facing that requirement.

The bill is one of several gun-related proposals before the Legislature, which is attempting to wrap up its work this month. The conversation is colored by the April arrest of 34-year-old Joseph M. Eaton, who allegedly killed his parents and their two friends in Bowdoin before firing at cars along Interstate 295 in Yarmouth, injuring a man and his two adult children.

Mills has not weighed in on the waiting period bill, but she opened her tenure in 2019 by urging Democrats to not pass a background check bill similar to the one rejected by voters. She has forged a politically powerful partnership with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which gave her high marks in a guide for members to the 2022 election.

David Trahan, the executive director of the alliance, has said he has negotiated with Mills on a package that would likely include a ban on “straw” purchases of firearms on behalf of people like Eaton barred as felons from having them, as well as more resources for the state’s “yellow flag” weapons restriction law that the alliance led alongside Mills.

Trahan also wants to more directly tackle the situation involving Eaton, a convicted felon who had been released from prison only days before the shooting, with a bill likely to come next year requiring probation-type checks on homes that violent felons will stay in after getting released.

But that proposal is not likely to see the light of day until 2024, and Trahan has said the consensus package with Mills is likely delayed with Talbot Ross and other Democrats pursuing the stricter gun-control laws that the alliance and the National Rifle Association oppose.

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