Gun bills prompt ‘nuanced’ stances by Maine delegation

As the debate on gun control in Washington — which reached a fever pitch shortly after the mass killings in Newtown, Conn. but has since reduced to a simmer — continues, there are few things Mainers should keep in mind.

The entire delegation is aware Maine has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country and one of the lowest crime rates. They also know when it comes to state politics, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is the lobbying force to be wary of, not so much for the National Rifle Association. And these facts lead to some nuance (nice way of putting it) or thoughtful vagueness (a not so nice way of putting it) when it comes to articulating their positions.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, representing Maine’s 1st Congressional District, has it the easiest. The Democrat has no right flank to worry about as she represents the most liberal and urban part of the state and as such soon after President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden outlined their gun reform proposals, she signed on to back the measures, which include stronger background checks, an assault weapons ban and a ban on high capacity ammunition clips.

The rest of the group has to thread more of a political needle — and they are.

Three bills recently won Senate Judiciary Committee approval: One, co-written by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, would make it a felony to purchase a gun for someone else, another aims to expand the kinds of sales that would require background checks  and the third would pay for increased school safety. When asked about the measures, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said it was “difficult to have the congressman comment on the Senate bills.”

“Generally speaking, however, the congressman has doubts about the effectiveness of a renewed assault weapons ban on reducing gun violence,” said Ed Gilman, a Michaud spokesman. “He is continuing to monitor discussions about ways to improve our background check system and agrees this could be an area for progress, as long as proposals to change NICS respect 2nd Amendment and privacy rights.”

Gilman added Michaud is “reviewing” a House bill similar to the measure Collins helped craft in the Senate and supports an Obama proposal to provide schools with increased funding for resource officers and counselors and measures that address “deficiencies in our nation’s mental health care system.”

Michaud is arguably in the toughest spot when it comes to gun regulation, as he is mulling a gubernatorial bid and would be loathe to alienate Maine gun rights advocates who tend to be more single-issue voters than gun reform proponents.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats showed skepticism about the effectiveness of re-instituting an assault weapons ban early on and has since rejected it as a practical way to cut down on gun violence. Crystal Canney, King’s spokeswoman, says he also supports background checks, but “not necessarily” the Senate Judiciary Committee-passed measure. He is a co-sponsor of Collins’ straw purchasing measure.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who is up for re-election in 2014, has set herself up to win points with both gun rights proponents and reformers. Collins has sky high approval ratings and it’s unlikely there is anyone on the horizon who could credibly challenge her in a Republican primary, but also clearly doesn’t want to give either side any ammo with which to attack her.

In addition to joining with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, to write the measure that cracks down on straw gun purchases, Collins is a co-sponsor of the enhanced school safety measure. But, the same as King, she has so far declined to sign onto the background check bill because of concerns about a national gun registry.

“Sen. Collins has said that she strongly opposes a national registry of gun owners which is not consistent with our Second Amendment rights,” said Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins.

When asked about her support for an assault weapons ban, he said she voted in support of the previous 10 year ban that expired in 2004 and left it at that.

With the House controlled by Republicans and a number of red state Democrats up for re-election in the Senate, it’s unlikely an assault weapons ban will ever even come up for a vote — so why go on the record about it and risk alienating voters?

Rebekah Metzler

About Rebekah Metzler

Rebekah Metzler is a political writer with U.S. News and World Report, who hails from the state of Maine where she covered state politics for the Lewiston Sun Journal and MaineToday Media. She spent much of 2012 covering the presidential campaign and particularly enjoyed her time on the road in states like Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Ohio and Ohio. Metzler earned her master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and is a Bowdoin College grad.