Debate about the state’s gun laws resumed in Augusta on Monday, with lawmakers hearing arguments for competing bills that would either strengthen the rights of firearm owners or restrict access.
It’s a perennial topic at the State House, but the debate this spring comes against the backdrop of a rise in mass shootings in the United States, including recent deadly rampages in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and in Maine.
Over the first four months and six days of this year, 115 people have died in 22 mass killings – an average of one per week, The Associated Press reported. That total represents the highest number of mass-killing deaths at this point in a year since at least 2006, according to AP data. The FBI defines a mass killing as four or more deaths not including the perpetrator.
While Maine lawmakers will continue to hold hearings on more gun bills in the coming days and possibly weeks, behind-the-scenes discussions are just beginning on a possible compromise bill aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of people who are prohibited from having them.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, an influential pro-gun rights organization, said in an interview Monday that he has held initial discussions with the governor’s office and lawmakers from both parties in response to the shootings in Maine last month.
Joseph Eaton, 34, had been released from prison only days before he is accused of shooting and killing four people, including his parents, in Bowdoin on April 18. Eaton, who police say also shot and injured three other people on Interstate 295 in Yarmouth that same day, has a long and violent criminal history and was legally prohibited from possessing firearms. Court filings indicate that Eaton used multiple guns, but police have not said how Eaton obtained the weapons.
Trahan said the group is looking for ways to make gun access more difficult for people like Eaton who are prohibited from possessing firearms.
“We will be looking at that process across state government and the way in which the government can intervene on behalf of the public in those situations,” Trahan said.
Possible solutions could address straw purchases, where an individual buys a firearm for someone who can’t legally purchase their own, and on strengthening a previously approved law that focuses on safe storage of guns so they don’t get into the wrong hands.
Trahan said he’s optimistic that a compromise bill can be presented and approved this session. But he cautioned that progress can only be made if both sides of the debate seek common ground and accept compromise.
“I think the gun control community and the gun rights community have to put down their immediate opposition to every idea or concept and hear what the policies are,” he said. “I think in the end, most people are going to find what we’re working on is acceptable to both sides.”
Separately, a slew of other gun bills continue to work their way through the legislative process.
Lawmakers already have held hearings on several Democrat-sponsored bills that would expand background checks to include private sales, institute a 72-hour waiting period for firearm purchases and make it illegal to sell or transfer a firearm to someone who is prohibited from having one.
Lawmakers also have heard testimony on Republican-backed bills to allow school employees, including teachers, to carry firearms at schools – a proposal aimed at discouraging or responding to school shootings.
And on Tuesday, lawmakers will hear testimony on L.D. 1560, sponsored by Rep. Chad Perkins, R-Dover Foxcroft, that would no longer require someone exercising self-defense to try to safely retreat.
On Monday, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held hearings on nine gun bills, including seven Republican-sponsored bills that would allow homeowners within 500 feet of a school to discharge a weapon on their property in self-defense, add restrictions to the type of information municipalities and companies can keep about firearm owners and ammunition, allow some people convicted of nonviolent felonies to have their gun rights restored, and allow cannabis users to legally possess firearms.
But a bill sponsored Rep. Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport, to ban rapid-fire modification devices, such as as bump stocks, drew the most comment. The devices can make a semiautomatic gun fire more like an automatic weapon.
RAPID-FIRE DEVICES TARGETED
L.D. 1340 would outlaw rapid-fire devices, which also include burst trigger systems and trigger cranks, making possession, transfer, distribution, sale or importation a Class D crime punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Sachs noted that 14 other states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Florida, have similar bans, which have not been deemed unconstitutional by any court.
A representative of the National Rifle Association, which opposes the bill, estimated that Mainers possess thousands of these devices, the prices of which can range from $20 to several hundred dollars. Rep. David Ardell, R-Monticello, asked Sachs how her bill would affect current owners of these devices.
“For their $20 piece of plastic – I’m not really worried about it, sir,” said Sachs, who added that she would be willing to work with Ardell on a provision for existing devices.
Two district attorneys testified in support of the bill.
Megan Maloney, district attorney for Somerset and Kennebec counties, recounted a shootout and high-speed chase with man wielding a modified firearm in 2019. A police officer responding to a shoplifting complaint at Walmart suddenly found himself in a hail of gunfire and a high-speed chase spanning two counties, she said.
“The officer was not expecting to be shot twice, once in each arm, effectively incapacitating him,” Maloney said. “Other law enforcement officers took up the pursuit. In the process, a total of nine officers dodged bullets before the subject could be subdued.”
The suspect was able to fire so many shots because he had a binary trigger system, she said. Such a rapid-fire modification allows a gun to fire one bullet when the trigger is pulled and another when it is released. But she charged him with aggravated attempted murder, she said, because she didn’t feel that she could charge him with having an illegal machine gun under Maine’s existing law.
“Even people like me, who support the Second Amendment, can see there is no reason for the sale of after-market modifications whose only purpose is to kill as many people as possible,” she said.
Cumberland County District Attorney Jacqueline Sartoris said she had a “number of open cases” where rapid-fire devices could factor into charging decisions, but warned that the current law contains a loophole.
The bill also exposed the fundamental disagreement between the sides.
Gun rights advocates argued that Mainers’ Second Amendment right to bare arms shall not be questioned or infringed, while gun control advocates argued that reasonable limits should be applied to protect public safety, especially when it comes to weapons and modifications that turn traditional firearms into a military-grade weapon.
Jonathan Martell, a Sanford City councilor and head of the Southern Maine Chapter for Gun Owners of Maine, sought to downplay the devices, which he contended could not make transitional firearms into machine guns as described by opponents.
“They’re not really doing anything you can’t do otherwise,” Martell said. “You can fire that fast with a finger if you practice a little bit.”
Supporters of the bill pointed to the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, where the suspect used several firearms modified with bump stocks to fire into a concert crowd from a hotel room window, killing 58 people and wounding nearly 500 more.
“Mainers do not need rapid-fire guns for hunting or self-protection,” said Michelle Stapleton, of Brunswick. “If we allow these devices to be sold and used here, we’re only asking for a repeat of the massacre we saw in Las Vegas.”