PORTLAND — Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, along with families of victims of school shootings from across the country came to Portland on Saturday afternoon to call for what they said are common sense gun laws.
“Stopping gun violence takes courage. The courage of doing right and the courage of new ideas,” said Giffords who spoke for less than two minutes to a crowd of about 100 people at Portland City Hall.
Giffords was critically wounded in January 2011 in an assassination attempt in which six other people were killed. She did not seek re-election to Congress after the shooting as she continues to recover from the shooting.
“We must never stop fighting. Fight, fight, fight,” Giffords said to a standing ovation from the gathering.
Giffords and Kelly created an organization called Americans for Responsible Solutions and are on a seven-state tour to call for universal background checks for people buying guns which would close what they said are numerous loopholes.
The speakers praised Maine’s two U.S. senators — Republican Susan Collins and Independent Angus King — for their support of federal legislation that would have expanded background checks. That legislation died in April in the Senate, however, because it failed to get 60 votes needed to break an expected filibuster.
“Forty percent of gun sales are being made without any idea of who they are, resulting in an epidemic of violence and crime in our nation,” said Kelly.
The creation of Americans for Responsible Solutions was made to level the playing field in Washington, D.C., where certain special interests and money hold sway over legislation, Kelly said. He cited polls that find 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks for gun buyers.
“Ninety percent. Do you know what else polls at 90 percent? Free money and ice cream,” the retired Navy captain said.
He acknowledged it would be a long, hard haul but that he believes that eventually enough people will convince Congress to pass the law. He urged Mainers to contact relatives and friends in states where senators were not supportive of the law and convince them to lobby their legislators.
Relatives of school shooting victims were also in attendance at the Saturday event.
Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was one of 20 first-graders murdered on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. said each day since the shooting he has searched for meaning to his son’s death.
“I don’t know if I will ever finding meaning but I will try,” Barden said. “It’s not about owning guns or not owning guns, it’s about common sense gun safety.”
He said he was disappointed but not defeated when the Senate failed to approve the expanded background check legislation. He urged the public to rededicate itself to getting the law approved.
Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan died at Sandy Hook, pointed out that more people have died in gun violence in the United States since Sandy Hook than the number of Americans who have died in the 12 years of the Iraq War.
“The only path forward for me has been to work to transform this tragedy into change, to do whatever I can to find common sense solutions to stop the causes of gun violence,” Hockley said.
The loopholes that allow criminals and the mentally ill to buy guns must be closed, she said.
“Our hearts are broken but our spirits are not,” she said.
In the audience was Regina Kaet from Arkansas. She won a trip to Maine and dinner with Giffords and Kelly for her work on gun legislation. She said she has worked on the issue since her niece Brittheny Varner was killed in the mass shooting at the school in Jonesboro, Ark. in 1998.
Kaet said her No. 1 priority is for Congress to close the loophole that allows sales of guns at gun shows or private sales or over the internet in which no background checks are required. She said her next priority would be for banning the sale of assault-style weapons.
Dory Waxman, a former Portland city councilor, said her foster son was shot in 1999 after he broke up a fight at a bar in the Old Port. He recovered but Waxman said she has fought for gun legislation after learning that the person who shot her foster son had acquired the handgun at a gun show even though he was on probation for a criminal conviction.
Following the event at Portland City Hall, Jeff Weinstein, president of the Maine Gun Owners Association Inc., based in Yarmouth, issued a news release in response to the call for gun legislation.
“While I substantively agree with the intent of Rep. Gabby Giffords’ campaign for tightened background checks on most gun transactions, I do have certain reservations about how long personal information may be retained in government files and which government agencies may have access to those files. If a proposed background check process can possibly morph into a de facto permanent gun registration program, then any effort to expand the background check process is doomed to failure, both politically and constitutionally,” Weinstein stated in the news release.
In a telephone interview, he said the association membership is in the hundreds but that numbers are not as important as the ideas.
He said that over the past several years, publicly and privately, the Maine Gun Owners Association has strongly recommended that gun owners and potential buyers voluntarily go through the background check process when transacting private sales.