AUGUSTA — People who make laws about guns should at least have some understanding of how they work, according to presenters at a firearms primer for approximately 20 legislators on Thursday.
With gun control at the center of national and state political discourse since the Dec. 14 massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine organized Thursday’s event to make sure lawmakers know what they are talking about when considering proposed legislation related to firearms, said SAM Executive Director David Trahan. And they will be talking about that a lot during this legislative session. Trahan said he organized the event because the Legislature is poised to consider some 60 bills related to firearms this session.
He said one of the most important things to get straight is what constitutes an assault weapon, which according to Trahan and others has to do with appearance, not capability.
Master Maine Guide Jeff Zimba illustrated that point in a YouTube video he produced for the workshop. He started with a semi-automatic Ruger Mini 14 Ranch Rifle with a traditional solid wooden stock. It looked like any number of typical hunting rifles.
“Most people wouldn’t look at this gun and say ‘yes it has to be banned,’” said Zimba. “However, there’s not a lot of common sense going into this and there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
Zimba then replaced the wooden stock with a fold-away stock with a pistol grip, which he said came directly from the manufacturer. The gun looked a lot different. The pistol grip and fold-away stock are specifically identified in an assault weapons ban sponsored by Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, which is under consideration in Congress.
“Absolutely nothing has changed except it now has a folding stock,” said Zimba of the rifle. “It doesn’t perform any different; it just looks different. Under [Feinstein’s] legislation, this would absolutely be an assault weapon and we haven’t done anything to it other than change the look.”
Also covered Thursday was basic firearms knowledge, gun safety, hunter safety and a review of relevant gun laws by Attorney General Janet Mills.
“It’s critically important that if we’re going to pass new laws and regulations based on the Connecticut shooting, that everyone understand at least the mechanics of firearms, such as the difference between semi-automatic and automatic,” said Trahan. “These folks are policy makers. The laws they’ll pass, we’ll live with for the next 30 or 40 years.”
The tension between gun rights and gun control in Maine extend beyond the political arena. Supporters of the Constitution’s Second Amendment are scheduled to stage a rally at 10 a.m. Friday outside the State House.
One of the legislators at the workshop was freshman Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, who said she has had very little exposure to firearms. Regardless, she has thrown herself into the gun control debate. In a commentary published by the Bangor Daily News last week, Cooper wrote that she will “keep talking until Americans rethought whether homes should contain the kind of firearms used by [Sandy Hook Elementary gunman] Adam Lanza.”
But Cooper said Thursday’s event was informative, particularly the demonstration about what constitutes an assault weapon and what doesn’t.
“I just felt it was incumbent on me to understand why people acquire some of these guns and how they use them,” said Cooper. “If you’re going to write and talk about gun violence, you have to know what you’re talking about. Today certainly filled in some holes in my understanding. … Now I really understand why it’s so difficult to define what you’re trying to prevent.”
Rep. Paul Edward Bennett, R-Kennebunk, also attended. He said he has very little experience with firearms, other than BB guns.
“The primary thing I learned about was about the look of the gun and the misconceptions that can cause,” said Bennett.
Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, was also at the event. As a former administrator for the Maine State Police, Marks has a lot of experience with firearms. Among the dozens of bills facing the Legislature is a bill Marks sponsored that would designate the Maine State Police as the sole entity that can issue concealed weapons permits and create a central registry for permit holders. He’s also seeking to end reciprocal agreements that allow people from other states to obtain concealed weapons permits in Maine. But that doesn’t mean Marks favors sweeping gun control measures.
Despite lawmakers’ interest in the event, they stopped short of actually handling guns. The event was supposed to end with a trip to a local range where legislators would have a chance to shoot, but no one was interested.
“There are going to be a lot of disappointed instructors at the range, but I’ll call them and tell them to pack up and go home,” said Trahan.