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Question 3: Requiring more background checks has people up in arms

Do you want to require background checks prior to the sale or transfer of firearms between individuals not licensed as firearms dealers, with failure to do so punishable by law, and with some exceptions for family members, hunting, self-defense, lawful competitions, and shooting range activity?

A controversial initiative on next month’s ballot would require criminal background checks on many unregulated private gun transfers, a proposal that firearms-friendly groups say misses the mark.

Question 3 takes aim at a loophole in federal law that has required licensed gun dealers to carry out background checks on every firearm purchase to make sure specific people can’t acquire weapons. Those checks have, during the past two decades, blocked more than 5,500 gun sales in Maine, including at least 2,790 sales to felons and 1,202 to domestic abusers.

But there’s a hole in the law that allows private sales and gifts without the necessity of a background check, opening the door to gun ownership for people barred from purchasing through dealers.

Blocking felons, domestic abusers and people with dangerous mental illnesses may sound good, critics say, but they assert that it won’t work and will cause major headaches for good gun owners who aren’t a threat to anyone.

The proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot “will do nothing to stop evil people from getting their hands on guns,” according to a dozen of Maine’s 16 sheriffs.

The sheriffs point out that “all relevant data indicates that criminals acquire firearms through theft and the black market,” without mentioning that one of the significant sources of the weapons used in crimes is the private sale or gift of weapons targeted by the measure.

The Maine Chiefs of Police Association, on the other hand, favors passage of the question. It said more background checks would help keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, including convicted felons and others deemed too dangerous to have firearms.

What really has foes up in arms, though, is the wording of a provision that exempts some transfers from the necessity of going through a background check for some private gun transfers.

The referendum waives the background check in cases where a gun is passed between family members, handed over during hunting and for emergency self-defense.

The language is so “silly and insane,” said Gov. Paul LePage, that if somebody borrowed a gun from a friend he’d have to go through a background check to use it — and then his friend would need one, too, in order to get his weapon back.

The law allows people to borrow guns at shooting ranges or while hunting legally, but doesn’t cover many other common scenarios, such as target practice on private property.

The governor also questioned how wardens or other law enforcement personnel would know whether it’s legal for someone to have any particular gun in his possession.

The sheriffs, including Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson, said the measure “is unenforceable, confusing, poorly written and threatens to make law-abiding gun owners into criminals for simply loaning a firearm to a friend.”

But experts said passing the question would assist with efforts to keep Maine guns from winding up in the hands of criminals elsewhere.

Nearly one in five guns recovered by Boston police at crime scenes from 2007 to 2013 originated in Maine or New Hampshire, states with weak gun laws, according to a study last year in Preventive Medicine.

Eliza Townsend, the executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said states that insist on background checks for all gun sales are safer for victims of domestic violence. She pointed to statistics that found 46 percent fewer women are shot to death by their intimate partners when background checks are mandatory.

“Requiring background checks for all gun sales is the most effective way to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers,” she said.

The Maine Medical Association has pressed for universal background checks since 2000 in the interests of public health.

Dr. Charles Pattavina, a Bangor emergency physician and president of the Maine Medical Association, said background checks “are effective at reducing death and injuries from firearms, and they help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”

“Question 3 contains some broad exemptions, particularly for family members, but we strongly support it as a step in the right direction,” he said.

The medical group said that states that require background checks for all gun transfers have the rates cut nearly in half for police deaths by handguns, women killed by domestic partners and suicides involving guns.

“While no single initiative will take care of the whole problem, background checks are a significant positive action that Maine can take,” the association said in a statement.

LePage said the reality is that the proposal “won’t do anything to stop criminals from getting guns” and insisted it’s a veiled step toward a gun registry that would log who owns all of the nearly 3 million guns in Maine.

LePage said billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a former New York City mayor, financed the initiative because “Maine’s a cheap date” with relatively low-cost media markets.

He urged residents to reject this “social engineering” effort by “out-of-staters” who want to tell us us “how to live our lives.”

The Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership Fund, which pushed for the ballot question, raised $3.2 million to promote it as of Sept. 30. Most of its money came from Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund.

The National Rifle Association, a vehement critic of the proposal, raised $420,000 through September.

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