AUGUSTA — A bill that would ban gun ownership for individuals convicted of non-felony domestic violence crimes passed a key legislative committee Friday.

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 5-3 in favor of LD 600, a bill offered by state Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield. Pickett is a former police chief and state police detective.

His bill would make it illegal for an individual convicted of a Class D or Class E domestic violence crime, including stalking and terrorizing, from being eligible to own or possess a firearm. The measure goes beyond federal law, which only prohibits those convicted of felony-level domestic violence crimes, including domestic violence assault, from possessing a firearm.

The committee amended Pickett’s bill to allow a person to regain the right to possess a firearm if he or she has no criminal convictions for five years following a lower-level domestic violence conviction.

Following the vote, Pickett said he was pleased with the result, although he would have preferred his original language.

“My whole purpose for this is if you have a weapon, in a household, or on a person who has a tendency toward domestic violence, you are putting something in their grasp that they can get a hold of that they can use,” Pickett told the committee.

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He added, “It may only start out with just the pushing and shoving, but pushing and shoving is just the beginning, and many times we know where that ends up. It ends up with someone dying.”

Pickett noted that 50 percent or more of the homicides committed in Maine in most years are related to domestic violence.

“This is a really, really important issue,” Pickett said. “No one wants to cause somebody not to be able to possess a firearm. I’m all about the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. I’m all about that. I’m just not about having firearms in the hands of people who have a tendency toward doing bad things and causing really severe injury and possibly even death.”

Pickett believes the measure would make it easier for police to remove firearms from individuals who may use them to harm a domestic partner or other family member. 

State Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a former Maine State Police trooper, voted for the bill after the amendment was added. Burns said it was a difficult line that lawmakers were trying to walk.

“We are talking about two critically important things,” Burns said. “One is to protect people and the other one is to guarantee a constitutional right, and I don’t want to sacrifice one for the other.”

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Other lawmakers backing the measure said it made sense to them because domestic violence suspects often enter into plea agreements that lower the seriousness of the charges.

“A lot of prosecutors, in cases, plea down a deal,” said state Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, House chairwoman of the committee. “The crime that was actually committed may not be what they were charged with or what they were convicted of and we need to keep that in mind when it comes to domestic violence. They may plea it down their first time to a misdemeanor, but they may have done one heck of a job on that victim.”

The bill also would expand the list of individuals prohibited from possessing firearms to include fugitives from justice, any persons who are users of or addicted to controlled substances and those who are prohibited under federal law from possessing firearms.

The bill would align Maine with federal law in making it illegal for illegal aliens or persons admitted to the U.S. on non-immigrant visas from possessing firearms and would add to the list of prohibited individuals any person who was discharged from the U.S. armed forces under dishonorable conditions and any person who has renounced U.S. citizenship.

Pickett’s bill will next go to the Maine House of Representatives for consideration.

The committee tabled a bill offered by state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, that would eliminate the permit requirement for people who want to carry concealed handguns.

Brakey, according to a text message he sent to the Sun Journal on Friday, was traveling to Texas to speak at a “libertarian” event and was unavailable for the work session.

Brakey’s bill was tentatively rescheduled for a committee work session Friday, April 24.

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