BANGOR — Maine’s congressional delegation, responding to Friday’s horrific elementary school shootings in Connecticut, agrees that something needs to be done to prevent gun violence, but they are split on how to address the problem.
Meanwhile, gun owners in Maine are preparing for possible future weapons bans by making purchases now.
“In fact, the day of the shooting on Friday, I had people come in,” Trenton gunshop owner Brian Stan, who opened Poseidon Firearms on the Bar Harbor Road two years ago, said Monday. “They’re all afraid of legislation. Everyone wants to get in and get grandfathered.”
Future gun-control legislation has been a talking point for months, especially after the second presidential debate, when President Barack Obama responded to a question about gun control by saying “weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets.”
The president’s statement caused gun sales to increase in November, based on fears he might try to sign into law new weapons bans, Maine gun shop owners said at the time.
The president didn’t specifically mention gun-control legislation during the debate or on Sunday, when he spoke in Newtown, Conn., in support of the families left broken and grieving in the wake of the school massacre. Obama did say, however, that a change is needed to prevent such tragedies in the future, and that was enough to spur some Maine gun owners to take action.
Frank Spizuoco, owner of Maine Military Supply in Holden, said Monday that many of his customers are telling him they are concerned about possible weapons-related bans.
“I’m all for enforcing the laws, not making them stricter,” he said. “Connecticut has one of the strictest gun laws in the country and that didn’t stop anything.”
Just down the street in Holden, Todd Rogers, owner of the The Hunting Lodge gun shop, said lawmakers are having a “knee-jerk reaction” to the horrendous events of Friday. He said instead of eyeing new laws, state and national leaders should focus on education and addressing ways to handle people with mental illness who are intent on hurting others.
Both Holden gun shop owners said large-capacity ammunition clips are in great demand now. Assault-style rifles are also being purchased, they and Stan said.
U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King and 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree both said Monday, in response to an emailed question from the Bangor Daily News, that they support a change in the law and think now is the time to look at banning high-capacity magazines and assault rifles.
Meanwhile, Susan Collins and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud responded to the question by saying that enforcing existing laws and addressing underlying causes are needed to stop the violence.
“We can’t avoid the issue any longer,” said Pingree, who already has co-sponsored bills to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. “It would be tragic if Congress and the president can’t now come together to take a serious look at how the nation’s gun laws can be reformed.”
Lawmakers also need to “close the loophole that lets violent criminals skip a background check and buy a gun at a gun show or through a classified ad,” the congresswoman said in a statement.
Powerful pro-gun special interest groups — such as the National Rifle Association — have been allowed for years to block action on any reasonable gun laws, Pingree said.
“We still don’t have a clear picture of all the facts in this horrific tragedy, but we know enough to conclude that it is time to take a close look at two gun-related issues — assault weapons and large ammunition magazines,” King said. “Given the role both appear to have played in this and other recent incidents, this discussion is vitally necessary as we try to balance the rights of law-abiding gun owners under the Second Amendment and the interest we all share in the safety of ourselves and our children.”
King said he intends to engage both Maine gun owners and advocates for stronger regulation and control in the discussion.
“A national conversation about curbing violence in America is overdue, especially in the wake of these horrendous murders in Connecticut,” Michaud said. “That conversation has to include how we can better enforce our gun laws while at the same time addressing the root causes of these tragedies, which are too often related to how we as a nation do or do not address the mental health care challenges facing our country.”
Michaud said he’s been contacted by Mainers on both sides of this issue.
“Some are looking for reforms to our gun laws as they relate to assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and others are concerned about restrictions on their constitutionally protected rights,” he said in a statement. “I’m convinced middle ground can be found, but it will take us working together to get there. We were all shaken to the core by this shooting and there must be cooperation, not confrontation.”
Collins, who voted for instant background checks and supported an extension of the assault weapon ban when it expired in 2004, said that “since the shootings, some have called for stricter gun laws. While denying the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens won’t change the behavior of those intent on using firearms for criminal purposes, I wholeheartedly agree that we must examine what can be done to help prevent gun violence.
“I grew up in northern Maine where responsible gun ownership is part of the heritage of many families, and Connecticut has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country,” she added. “Nevertheless, we should examine, among other issues, whether states are reporting data on mentally ill individuals found to be a danger to themselves or others to the national background check database designed to prevent gun purchases by such individuals.”
The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, was put into place in November 1998. The number of people who have applied to purchase guns annually has doubled since the program’s inception, increasing from nearly 8.5 million to more than 16.8 million in 2012.
Those who want to purchase a gun in the U.S. must fill out and sign FBI paperwork. The gun dealer then calls NICS to see if the buyer is barred by federal law from possessing firearms. Approximately 790,550 Mainers have applied to own a gun since 1998, NICS data show.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s spokesman, Brandon Bouchard, said the retiring senator believes it’s time for the country to come together to talk about stopping gun violence.
“Given the savagery of this act, it will be appropriate to have a debate and discussion on the range of issues surrounding this horrific and brutal attack in the next Congress,” Bouchard said.
Protecting the country’s children — its most vulnerable citizens — should be the goal of any discussions, Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Monday.
“As leaders we have a duty to reassure every parent in our state that their children are safe at school,” he said. “As a father of three, I take that charge personally and seriously. We must take a comprehensive approach in examining our mental health systems, our school safety, and our gun control regulations to make sure we are doing what is best for our children’s safety.”
Stan said he and his customers know that state and federal lawmakers may consider new rules around guns.
“It’s a crazy world, … [and] unfortunately banning guns is not the solution,” he said. “The problem is in the heart of man.”