AUGUSTA — Lawmakers clashed Thursday about how to move forward with the sweeping gun safety and mental health care bill that Gov. Janet Mills unveiled Wednesday in response to the mass shooting in Lewiston.

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said Republicans wanted the bill to go through a special hearing process because it impacts a wide array of policy areas, including gun access, mental health and criminal justice. But Democrats in the Senate overruled him and referred the bill to the standing Judiciary Committee to begin the review and debate possible amendments.

The conflict over what is normally a routine part of the legislative process highlights the sensitivity over gun safety legislation in a state with a long tradition of gun ownership and hunting. And it suggests a bipartisan compromise may be elusive, even after the mass shooting that killed 18 people at two locations in Lewiston in October.

“This is such a significant event and a significant moment in our state’s history,” Stewart said of the Oct. 25 shooting, which was the worst in state history and the most deadly in the U.S. last year, “that I think it warrants – as we have in other cases just in this Legislature alone – a different approach to the hearing process.”

Stewart pointed to two other times the Legislature set up a special process – when it approved one-time checks to Maine taxpayers to help offset winter heating costs and when it took up a sweeping bill to restore tribal sovereignty.

Senate Democrats, however, decided to stick to the normal process, saying it should be sufficient to hear input from members of the public and lawmakers. They referred the bill in a 20-10 party-line vote to the Judiciary Committee, which is led by Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, who is the chair of the gun safety caucus.


“We shouldn’t be changing our joint rules on the fly for one piece of legislation,” Carney said. “We should stick with the joint rules that have served us well.”

Mills is proposing an expansion of mandatory background checks on gun buyers to include advertised private sales as well as commercial sales. Unadvertised transfers between family members or friends would not be affected. The governor’s bill also would allow police to act more aggressively to remove firearms from someone who is deemed a danger to themselves or others.

The bill, L.D. 2224, also would expand access to emergency mental health services for people in crisis. It would establish an Injury and Violence Prevention Program at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Mills’ legislation is the first significant gun control bill to be presented, lawmakers still could put forward other proposals, such as a streamlined process for taking guns away from someone who poses a threat and restricting access to semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines such as those used in the Lewiston mass shooting.

Democrats control both legislative chambers and the Blaine House, which means they can pass a bill without any Republican support, as long as they stay united. But Democrats have a long history of splitting on bills that would restrict gun access, with many rural lawmakers strongly protective of access rights.

The debate over which committee will get the proposal is expected to be just the first of many in the coming weeks.


Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, said lawmakers often work on bills that touch on a wide swath of policy areas. She said lawmakers not serving on the Judiciary Committee can offer testimony during the public hearing process, and the committee could refer the bill to another committee for input or communicate with it in writing.

But Sen. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, said members of the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee, on which he serves, should have the ability to pose questions to people who testify during the public hearing. He said the only way for Democrats to heed Mills’ call for bipartisan action is to give Republicans a meaningful role in the process.

“The chief executive in her State of State said she wanted bipartisan support,” he said. “If we’re going to accomplish that, I think we’re going to need to have everyone at the table addressing this issue at the very beginning and not just having it rammed down our throat.”

The referral is expected to be taken up by the House of Representatives sometime next week.

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