Posted Oct. 14, 2016, at 6:23 a.m.
Maine law enforcement officers are on the front line of violent crime, but they are no less divided than the public they’re sworn to serve and protect when it comes to tightening the state’s gun laws.
Twelve Maine sheriffs came out against a referendum on the November ballot — Question 3 — that would expand background checks to include all gun sales and transfers. The sheriffs said in a letter earlier this month that the measure will do “nothing to stop evil people from getting their hands on guns.”
The Maine Warden Service, while taking no official position on the issue, on Monday said it has “ serious concerns” about the impact Question 3 could have on hunters and trappers.
This comes just weeks after the Maine Chiefs of Police Association announced support for Question 3, calling for expanding background checks to close a “loophole” that gives felons, people with mental illness and others convicted of domestic violence access to guns.
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The political division comes down to the character of the populations the officers serve. Appointed police chiefs tend to come from more populous cities, where gun control policies enjoy greater support, while elected sheriffs represent largely rural populations, who hold fast to a strong tradition of gun ownership.
“Law enforcement leadership here in the state of Maine reflects the larger debate between those supporting gun control and those wanting to promote strict Second Amendment rights,” said Dale Brooker, an association professor of criminal justice at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.
The sheriffs are voicing skepticism of gun control common in rural communities.
Opposition to gun control historically has been higher in rural areas with a culture that celebrates gun ownership. Maine is no exception, where hunting and sport shooting are popular activities and gun loans and transfers are common.
While background checks poll well across the state, with 61 percent of likely voters in support of the passage of Question 3, according to a Portland Press Herald poll released in September, that support isn’t as heavy in the more rural 2nd Congressional District. There, where gun ownership is higher, 52 percent favor its passage.
York County Sheriff William King, who signed onto the letter opposing Question 3, said the law is “too wide reaching” with its requirement for background checks for temporary transfers of guns. He said that would make it more difficult for lawful gun owners to loan and trade their firearms rather than restrict access to guns for felons and people with domestic violence convictions.
“Nobody wants a criminal or a person suffering from mental illness to have a firearm, and everybody wants to stop all gun violence,” King said.
But people prohibited from owning or possessing guns under state or federal law would continue to get them through straw purchasers or theft, he said. Straw purchases — when someone else buys a gun for a prohibited person — are the source for about 46 percent of trafficked guns, according to the U.S. Bureau of Firearms, Alcohol and Tobacco.
That prohibited persons will continue to get guns is one reason Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols, a vocal critic of the ballot question, called the measure “flawed.” New gun regulations aren’t the answer to felons and people with domestic violence convictions obtaining firearms, he said. Enforcing laws already on the books is, Nichols said.
“These people who are prohibited from purchasing a firearm already are committing a crime by obtaining a firearm, regardless of how they obtained it,” he said.
Unlike proponents of Question 3, Nichols sees no urgent need for additional gun control measures because Maine doesn’t have a big problem with gun violence. In 2011, Maine had the fifth-lowest rate of violent crime involving guns at 14 percent, half the national average, according to the Muskie School of Public Service, a unit of the University of Southern Maine in Portland. But that was an increase from 11 percent in 2007.
“Let’s face it, this state does not have a huge crime problem. We do a very good job keeping this state safe from York County to Aroostook,” Nichols said.
Brooker said it makes sense that most Maine’s sheriffs oppose Question 3 because they represent a political constituency that favors less gun control and more gun ownership. And that’s not unique to Maine. In Nevada, where a campaign also is underway to expand background checks, most sheriffs oppose the ballot question, while the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers endorses it.
“They’re reflecting rural Mainers’ feelings and thoughts about their Second Amendment right to possess firearms without regulations of any sort,” Brooker said.
The sheriffs serving Cumberland, Kennebec, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties did not come out against the referendum.
Police in Maine’s more populous south argue it’s too easy for people prohibited from owning guns to get them.
Joel Merry, sheriff of Sagadahoc County and president of the Maine Sheriffs Association — which opted not to take a position on Question 3 — said the referendum addresses a problematic hole in the state’s background check system.
Under federal law, anyone who wants to buy a gun through a licensed firearm dealer must undergo a background check. Certain people — felons, people with domestic violence convictions and others deemed dangerous — are prohibited from purchasing and possessing guns under federal and state law. But background checks aren’t required for all private exchanges, including those made over the internet at websites like Armslist.com and through magazines like Uncle Henry’s.
“What [their letter] doesn’t say is that there is a problem with this loophole, and this is an attempt to close it,” Merry said.
Question 3 would close that gap through expanding background checks to include all gun sales and transfers, except for exchanges between family members and for self-defense, among other exemptions. Maine would join 11 states that already have universal background checks for gun sales and transfers at the point of transfer, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“There are people out there getting firearms who shouldn’t have them, and one of the ways [to keep them from obtaining them] is to fill in the background loophole to make it more difficult for these people to get a gun,” said Robert Schwartz, a former chief of the South Portland Police Department and executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.
Since 1998, 5,500 people in Maine have been denied gun purchases after failing a background check based on felony convictions, mental illness or other factors, including 1,200 who were convicted of domestic violence, according to an Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of FBI data. Those people, however, have other ways of getting a gun
By one estimate, as many as 40 percent of guns are obtained through private sales and transfers that do not require backgrounds. (That estimate from a federal study conducted in the 1990s is hotly debated.) Everytown — the national group behind the push to expand background checks here — cites a recent analysis that found about 3,000 guns are advertised by unlicensed sellers that would not require a background check.
While Maine has an overall low rate of violent crime, police officials like Merry and Schwartz contend Question 3 is a necessary step to reducing access to guns for people who are mentally ill or have a criminal record to prevent violence before it occurs.
“We go to the domestic violence calls and other scenes. We see what guns can do,” Schwartz said. “Anybody in law enforcement realizes we have to do anything we can to save lives. And that means keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not have one.”