AUGUSTA — Former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert joined a group of lawmakers, law enforcement officers and others Wednesday calling on the Legislature to pass a bill that requires background checks for private gun sales in Maine.
Gilbert, a member of the Coalition for a Safer Maine, led a news conference at the State House, saying his biggest motivation for the bill was his twin 9-month-old granddaughters.
"As a grandfather, they get you, right here," Gilbert said, putting his hand to his heart. "I want them to be safe at school, every day, and I want them to live a full life."
A former Lewiston police chief and U.S. marshal, Gilbert said he supported the bill, LD 1240, which would penalize those who sold guns in private sales if they didn't first conduct criminal background checks on the individuals buying the firearms and the firearms were later used to commit crimes.
The bill doesn't require a background check but makes it a crime if a private seller knowingly sells a firearm to a person who is prohibited from possessing a firearm, either because of a criminal record or an involuntary commitment to a mental health facility.
The bill makes it a misdemeanor crime and ratchets up the penalties for multiple offenses.
The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff. The bill also has the support of Portland police Chief Michael Sauschuck and former U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby.
Augusta Mayor Bill Stokes, who is a deputy attorney general for Maine, joined the group in his mayoral role, offering his support of the bill, along with state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.
Gerzofsky said only those who had something to hide were opposed to background checks for gun sales.
"Doing background checks to try and save lives, to me, is such a no-brainer," Gerzofsky said. "I wonder sometimes if it's the people who can't pass the background checks who are so offended by trying to pass a bill that's going to enforce background checks. If you have nothing to hide, don't hide."
Sauschuck said he knew of multiple incidents in Portland in which handguns were sold in parking lots between private parties without background checks.
He said the law that requires federal firearms dealers to conduct background checks before sales shows the checks work when trying to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.
"Two million prohibited persons have walked up to gun counters across this nation and have been turned away because of background checks," Sauschuck said. In Maine, 300 individuals are turned away each year, he said. "Prohibited persons, with unknown intentions, are turned away — because of background checks."
Sauschuck said the proposed law is simple and clear and would work.
Others in the coalition pointed to recent public opinion surveys that show 89 percent of Maine voters favor background checks.
Michele Pfannenstiel, a native of Newtown, Conn., who lives in Maine, also spoke about the need for improved background checks.
A veteran who was trained with assault weapons in the military, Pfannenstiel said when she moved to Maine she was seeking a community that reminded her of Newtown. The tragic shooting of schoolchildren there made people in small towns all around America feel vulnerable and worry about their children, she said.
Pfannenstiel spoke about how she felt taking her daughter to kindergarten orientation this spring, while thinking about Newtown.
"I had to hang on to my husband before I walked in," she said. "Knowing that Newtown happened, knowing that Columbine happened, knowing that our schools are not safe, our malls are not safe, our movie theaters are not safe, we need common-sense legislation. We need LD 1240."
The bill has not yet been scheduled for a vote in the Legislature but is expected to come up for a debate in the next few days.