LEWISTON — Mayor Larry Gilbert, a former U.S. marshal and Lewiston police chief, added his voice to a chorus of more than 500 U.S. mayors this week urging the Congress to change federal law and make criminal background checks a mandatory requirement for those purchasing firearms at gun shows.

The group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, includes mayors of big cities like Boston and New York. It has launched a national television advertising campaign urging lawmakers opposed to stricter gun laws to change their position.

“It’s inexcusable that a gap in federal law enables criminals and other dangerous people to buy guns at gun shows — no background checks, no questions asked,” Gilbert said in a prepared statement. “We need to close this gap in federal law once and for all to protect our communities and to keep our police safe.”

A summary of the bill, available on www.govtrack.us, states the bill, “Amends the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to require registration of gun show promoters and to set forth the responsibilities of promoters, licensees, and other transferors.

“Provides that if any part of a firearm transaction takes place at a gun show, each licensed importer, manufacturer, and dealer who transfers one or more firearms to a person who is not licensed shall, within 10 days after the transfer, submit a report of the transfer to the Attorney General.

“Sets forth penalties for violations. Grants the Attorney General authority to enter the place of business of any gun show promoter and any place where a gun show is held, during business hours and without a showing of reasonable cause or a warrant, for purposes of examining records and the inventory of licensees conducting business to determine compliance with this Act.

“Increases penalties for: (1) serious record-keeping violations by licensees; and (2) violations of criminal background check requirements. “

Maine’s U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans,  have voiced skepticism about the federal bill aimed at making this change, noting it would be an additional burden on law-abiding citizens and do little to curb the illegal acquisition of firearms by criminals. Others have criticized the bill saying it would create a registry of gun owners and be in direct conflict with the Second Amendment.

“It’s clear that this bill creates a defacto gun owner registration database in states where registration is not required, such as here in Maine,” Joel Weinstein, the president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network in an interview aired Wednesday. “It subverts the law-abiding individuals’ right to purchase, without any encumbrances, any firearm of their choice.”

Snowe said since she’s been in Congress she’s been a strong advocate for Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens.

“It has always been my view that Congress should do all it can to minimize the illegal ownership and use of guns and fully enforce firearms laws already in place,” Snowe said in a prepared statement issued Thursday,”As Congress moves forward with its debate on this issue, I will continue to advocate for policies and reforms I believe are in the best interest of my fellow Mainers, the American people and the nation as a whole.”

She and Collins both said gun ownership is an important right many Mainers hold dear.

“In Maine, responsible gun ownership is a part of the heritage of many families, and I believe that our laws should be directed toward those who misuse firearms, not at law-abiding citizens,” Collins said in a prepared statement Thursday. “While I support common-sense steps to prevent criminals from buying guns, I do not believe that imposing additional requirements on law-abiding citizens purchasing firearms at gun shows will change the behavior of those intent on using firearms for criminal purposes. Gun dealers already perform background checks on purchasers at gun shows.”

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Q&A with Mayor Gilbert on gun show loophole

SJ: What do you say to folks who are concerned about this legislation creating a gun-owners registry?

LG:  The bill does not create a gun-owners registry. The bill does not require gun show attendees to provide any personal information or any information about the guns they own. The bill does require people who come to gun shows to sell guns to provide their information to the operator of the gun show. That information is not sent to the federal government but is kept by the gun show operator.

In fact, federal law forbids the creation of any gun-owner registry, and this bill will not change that. The full text of the bill is available at www.thomas.gov.

I encourage people to read it.

SJ: How many crimes in Lewiston recently have involved illegally obtained gun show weapons?

LG: When you buy a gun at a gun store, you have to go through a background check and fill out paperwork. That paperwork helps police trace the gun if the gun is recovered in a crime. But when you buy a gun from a private seller at a gun show, there is no background check, no paperwork, no questions asked. So guns bought through private sales at gun shows are nearly impossible to trace. That’s one reason why this loophole is so dangerous – it’s a way for criminals to launder illegal guns. We do know from a study of criminal investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives that 30 percent of all illegally trafficked guns are connected to gun shows.

SJ:  Do you have a response to Sens, Snowe and Collins, as they seem opposed to this legislation as it currently reads?

LG:  In the last decade, the background checks conducted by licensed gun dealers have blocked more than 700,000 sales to criminals and other dangerous people. This bill – S. 843 – would merely extend those background checks to all sales at gun shows. This is the same background check that is conducted at licensed gun stores every day. It would not in any way keep law-abiding citizens from buying or selling guns at gun shows. Sixteen states have closed this loophole, and gun shows in those states continue to thrive. I respect the rich tradition of hunting and owning firearms for sport in Maine. But it’s just common sense that background checks will make sure our guns do not end up in the wrong hands.

SJ:  Any other thoughts or comments you would like to add?

LG:  I grew up here in Maine and have spent most of my life in law enforcement. We should do everything within our power to stop criminals from getting guns. Requiring background checks for gun sales is just common sense. I think that’s why — according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz — 69 percent of all NRA gun owners support background checks for all gun sales at gun shows. I urge our senators to co-sponsor the bill.

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