This past week, Mainers came together in an effort to get an important gun safety initiative onto next year’s ballot. At events in Ellsworth and Portland, volunteers started collecting signatures so that next fall Maine voters will have the opportunity to support criminal background checks on all gun sales.
This is a common-sense public safety measure that recognizes that Second Amendment rights go hand in hand with the responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Mainers deserve the chance to have an up-or-down vote on this critical issue.
I am a lifelong Mainer, and public service to this state runs in my family. I know the overwhelming majority of Maine gun owners are law-abiding and responsible. Most of us already go through background checks when purchasing our guns, since federal law requires that licensed dealers conduct such checks on all of their sales.
Under the current law, however, there is a dangerous loophole that makes it easy for dangerous people — criminals, domestic abusers and people with severe mental illness — to avoid that same criminal background check, simply by buying their gun from an unlicensed seller.
Having spent the entirety of my 43-year career in law enforcement in Maine, I’ve seen how easy it can be for a criminal to get a gun by exploiting these loopholes. Just last year we were involved in an investigation with federal agencies that involved the straw purchase of a handgun for a convicted felon. Luckily, the felon was convicted and is in jail and off the streets.
Criminals take advantage of the private sale loophole with alarming frequency, buying guns from strangers met online, at gun shows or through swap, buy-and-sell magazines — with no background check required. Research has shown that more than 25,000 guns are sold by private sellers each year through one website alone — Armslist.com.
The proposed Maine Background Check Initiative aims to address this problem by requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales in Maine, with reasonable exceptions for immediate family members, hunting and self-defense situations.
While no law will prevent every possible sale to dangerous individuals, don’t we owe it to ourselves to do whatever is in our power to prevent such sales from happening? Shouldn’t we do what we can to make Maine safer?
Mainers are problem solvers. We believe in common sense.
That’s why some eight in 10 Maine voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents, gun owners and non-gun owners alike — support criminal background checks on all gun sales.
What’s more, the data on this issue couldn’t be clearer: In states that require background checks on all handgun sales, 48 percent fewer law enforcement officers are killed with handguns, 46 percent fewer women are shot to death by intimate partners and there are 48 percent fewer gun suicides.
As law-abiding gun owners already know, completing a background check is remarkably simple, with more than 90 percent of federal background checks completed within two minutes. Under the initiative, private sellers and buyers would simply meet at a gun dealer, who would run the same background check he would run if he were selling a gun from his own inventory. This does not present a burden: In fact, 98 percent of Maine residents live within 10 miles of a licensed gun dealer. There are 468 licensed dealers in the state — more than the total number of post offices.
The Background Check Initiative is a reasonable approach to our gun violence problem. It isn’t a cure-all, but I firmly believe it will make our state safer.
As Caribou police chief, it’s my job to keep the people in my community safe. Fighting for common-sense background checks is simply an extension of that work. I urge my fellow Mainers to sign the petitions to qualify this measure for the November 2016 ballot — and to vote yes on criminal background checks for all gun sales.
Michael Gahagan is the chief of the Caribou Police Department.