Domestic abuse bill has new chance

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LEWISTON – A new layer of protection for the victims of domestic violence has a chance for resurrection at the State House.

Legislation that would require police to warn people who have taken out a protection-from-abuse order when their tormentors attempt to illegally buy a gun was killed earlier in the session when a controversial amendment was added in the House.

Now, with just three scheduled days left before the Legislature adjourns, there’s an opening for a compromise that could revive the bipartisan bill.

L.D. 1938 won unanimous support from the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and had the support of law enforcement and victims’ advocates. No one testified against it during public hearings, and the bill appeared to be headed for easy passage.

Then a metamorphosis began.

In its original form, the bill would have required that state and local police work to contact abuse victims if their abusers attempt to illegally buy a gun. It’s against federal law for a person with a protection-from-abuse order against them to buy a firearm.

Assistant Minority Leader Josh Tardy, R-Newport, offered two amendments that would have drastically changed the nature of the legislation by including controversial measures that had not been aired through a public hearing or considered by the public safety committee.

The amendments would have created new obligations for law enforcement agencies that seize guns from persons subject to a protection order and created a “bad faith remedy,” which would allow people wrongly accused of abuse to recoup damages and attorney’s fees.

Both amendments failed. In an attempt to reach a compromise, Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, offered a third amendment that would require the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to provide training to police departments for the proper handling and storage of seized guns.

The amendment passed in the House, but the Senate refused to approve the encumbered bill.

“A bill to protect the victims of domestic violence was attempted to be turned into a bill to protect guns,” said Rep. Deborah Simpson, D-Auburn, the bill’s lead sponsor in the House.

“The person with the least amount of power is the woman who has been living, perhaps for years, being told that she’s worthless and being afraid for her life. It’s baloney,” Simpson said. “And for what? To say our law enforcement doesn’t know how to deal with guns?”

Simpson laid the blame for the amendments at the feet of the National Rifle Association, which supported the proposed changes to the law.

“It seemed as if, at least as policy makers, there was an understanding just a few years ago that domestic violence is a very serious crime. It’s our No. 1 cause of homicide,” Simpson said. “What made me the most angry is the shock that it didn’t really register as a priority for my colleagues, that it was more important to stick on an NRA amendment than to pass a bill that might change lives.”

A message left with John Hohenwarter, a lobbyist for the NRA in Maine was not returned Monday.

“It was a real travesty,” said Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland and the lead sponsor of the legislation. “They threw away the legislative process to meet their own needs.”

Strimling said that he worked on the bill for more than four months to make sure gun-rights groups, victims’ advocates and law enforcement understood what the bill would do. “Nobody testified against it,” Strimling said. “The NRA didn’t testify at all, which makes sense because it has nothing to do with guns.”

Messages left for Tardy were not returned Monday afternoon.

In the past two years, at least 70 Mainers tried to buy a gun illegally while subject to a protection order. According to Michael Cantara, the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, there are administrative hurdles that make it difficult for state and local police to take action based on the attempted purchases, which are tracked by the FBI.

The FBI, he said, agreed to help resolve those issues if the Legislature passed the bill.

“It would have been one more tool that might have assisted people in this area,” Cantara said.

According to House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, a deal has been reached that would allow the domestic violence bill to be revived. In the terms described by Cummings, the bill will be allowed to stand alone and is likely to pass. The Mills amendment will also be considered as stand-alone legislation without first being assigned to committee or given a public hearing. Cummings said he had discussed the details of the trade-off with the lawmakers involved and with the advocacy community.

“I am reasonably confident that we will have the opportunity to keep this important bill alive,” Cummings said. “This issue has been pretty well debated on the floor of the House.

The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene May 22.

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