AUGUSTA — State and federal lawmakers from Maine on Wednesday renewed their support for law changes that would improve gun-sale background checks in the U.S. after a mass shooting in Washington D.C., on Monday.
The incident, which claimed the lives of 13 people, including the shooter, at the Navy Yard, remains under investigation. But emerging details indicate the gunman may have been suffering from mental health problems.
Republicans, independents and Democrats from Maine said they support proposed law changes that would tighten gun-sale background checks in an effort to keep the mentally ill and those with criminal convictions from obtaining firearms.
“I supported the effort to strengthen background checks for firearm purchases," U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a prepared statement.
Collins said emerging details on the shooting led her to believe the federal government must also review whether states are properly reporting data on felons and individuals with serious mental illnesses to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
"NICS is designed to keep firearms out of the wrong hands, yet it is only as effective as the information reported to it," Collins said. "This is why we should advance measures that would shore up the reporting practices of states."
Collins was one of only four Republicans to support a Senate measure in April, offered by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would have expanded background checks at the federal level.
The Manchin-Toomey bill would have expanded the federal background check requirement to private and online sales of firearms. The measure largely excluded from background checks the sale or transfer of firearms among family members.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also supported the bill, which never came to a vote because it could not garner the 60 votes needed to avert a filibuster.
"That was my most disappointing day because I thought we had the votes," King told a Sun Journal editorial board meeting in August. "Will there be a breakthrough? I don't know whether it will take another tragedy or whether it will be a test at the ballot box. But there is no straight-faced argument against background checks."
King also said the federal bill only applied to those who were criminals or criminally insane, so arguments that 2nd Amendment rights were being infringed upon by background checks seemed unfounded to him.
At the time, King said much of the conservative opposition to the bill wasn't a matter of being against a background check expansion but a matter of denying President Barack Obama a legislative victory in Washington.
On Wednesday, King said he still supported the Machin-Toomey measure, which could come up for another vote in the Senate in 2014.
"The shooting at the Navy Yard was a tragedy, and I'm ready to vote on background checks," King said. "Unfortunately, I understand at this time there aren't enough votes to make it happen."
Collins also said Wednesday more needs to be done to identify and treat those with mental illness.
“As was the case in the Connecticut, Colorado, Arizona and the D.C. shootings, mental illness is a common factor in many of these tragedies," Collins said. "Our current system is fragmented, and people with serious mental illness all too often lack access to the care that they need."
Collins is a co-sponsor of the Excellence in Mental Health Act, a bill that would expand access to mental health care for individuals through community mental health centers, she said.
Maine state Sen. President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he also supported strengthening the background check system.
On Wednesday, Alfond, who sponsored failed legislation in 2013 to limit the size of ammunition clips sold in Maine, said states will likely take the lead on the issue as Congress has been unable to enact new federal gun controls.
He said Monday's mass shooting in Washington was another example of why state and federal lawmakers should act.
“This is another sad and unfortunate event that reminds us that until we look at gun-safety solutions, guns will find their way into the hands of those who shouldn’t have them," Alfond said.
"Certainly, universal background checks make common sense," he said. "It ensures the rights of law-abiding citizens to own a gun to hunt or protect their family and it’s one roadblock between a violent offender and another crime scene.”