Mills, LePage navigate tricky politics of gun rights

Second Amendment

After a downgrade in her first campaign, Gov. Janet Mills’ ranking with one of the most prominent gun lobbying organizations increased this year without much fanfare — reflecting the changing political terrain on gun rights since her first campaign.

The release of the National Rifle Association’s campaign scorecards last week saw Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Paul LePage earning the group’s endorsement, as he did in 2014. The endorsement praised LePage for issues such as being against needing a permit to carry a concealed weapon, opposing gun and magazine bans and a promise to “work tirelessly” to increase mental health resources and school security. 

That endorsement was overshadowed, however, by a messy dispute between LePage and the influential Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine over the Republican’s refusal to finish a questionnaire, resulting in an incomplete rating. The Alliance is a key player in discussions involving gun and hunting rights and conservation in Maine and in Congress. It gave Mills a thumbs up and an A rating, leading with her support of a 2019 “yellow flag” bill tying gun seizures to mental health evaluations and a gun storage safety program but also her and her staff’s help in “defeating all gun bills we viewed as negative.”

But the NRA gave Mills a “C” this year, a rise from the “F” she received in her first campaign for governor for supporting gun control measures

At the time, she said she was proud of the F from the NRA – “I wouldn’t usually be proud to get a failing grade … but this time I’ll make an exception,” she wrote on Facebook in July 2018

Further back in her career, as a legislator from rural Farmington in 2007, she got high marks from the NRA.

A “C” ranking indicates a mixed record on the NRA’s view of gun rights, according to the organization’s site. It did not offer specific reasons for the rating.

The various grades reflect the complicated nature of gun legislation in Maine, where Mills has occasionally found herself at odds with more progressive members of her coalition.

That is because what is seen as acceptable gun safety measures — or restriction, depending on the view — in other progressive states might not fly in Maine, thanks to its tradition of outdoor hunting, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine Orono. Mills’ stances on resisting background checks for third-party gun sales and raising the age limit to purchase ammunition from 18 to 21 might frustrate progressives, he said, but would be unlikely to make them stay home.

“They maybe didn’t like it, but they don’t have alternatives,” he said.

Democrats have become increasingly distanced from the NRA, particularly as calls for gun control have gathered steam in the wake of several high-profile mass shootings. A New York Times analysis found no Democrat running for Congress in 2022 had an “A” rating from the NRA for the first time in over two decades. 

The only Democrat who had a “B” from the NRA in the Times analysis was Maine’s 2nd Congressional U.S. Rep. Jared Golden. However, the NRA declined to make an endorsement this year in Golden’s third run for office, even though Republican Bruce Poliquin netted a higher rating. A small number of state Senate Democrats received endorsements.

The Alliance’s rating was held up by the Mills campaign as proof of her support for conservation issues. Campaign spokesperson Scott Ogden pointed to Mills’ upbringing in rural Maine and a connection between Second Amendment rights and the outdoors.

“When it comes to public safety, the Governor’s focus has always been to bring together people of different views – including Democrats, Republicans, public safety officials, public health officials, members of the judicial system, advocates, community members, and more – to implement lasting public safety reforms,” he said.

LePage told the Portland Press Herald that the NRA’s endorsement weighs higher in his view, saying it has 100,000 members in the state compared to 7,000 with the Alliance. It lists at least 8,000 members on its website.

His spokesperson, Brent Littlefield, said LePage’s record on the issue would stand up to Mills’ increased rating, saying his record “cannot be questioned.” He said LePage is supportive of education on safe storage of guns, but not a “one-size-fits-all” mandate. When asked about support for the state’s yellow flag law, he referred to prior attempts to address mental health by adding beds at the Windham Correctional Facility.

The state has seen some pitched battles over gun issues in recent years. A ballot effort to require background checks on private sales and transfers was defeated by 52 percent to 48 percent of voters in 2016, leading Mills to say people have spoken on the issue in 2018. The yellow flag bill was the subject of months of negotiations. A bill to charge people who allow children under 16 to access a gun without parental permission with criminal negligence was the subject of tight votes in the Legislature and passed into law without Mills’ signature.

David Trehan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance, said he viewed Mills’ rating change as a sign of the governor’s willingness to compromise on issues. “I think she decided she would rather make progress than fight the whole four years on things that might not make it through the Supreme Court,” he said.

It is unlikely the rating, or gun issues at all, would make a dent in the election, which has been largely focused on the economy and abortion, Trehan said. Geoff Bickford, the executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said it was probably true that most gun safety-conscious voters would still vote for Mills. But he said her resistance to “common sense” practices would not dissuade his group from trying again next year.

“We’re not going to change the way we operate going forward,” he said.

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