Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, listens at a committee hearing in Augusta as a member of the Maine Senate on May 6, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A group of Democratic lawmakers will propose gun magazine limits and expanding background checks after hoax threats against Maine schools and mass shootings nationally, something likely to put them at odds with a skeptical Gov. Janet Mills and Republicans.

Maine stands out for being a Democratic-controlled state that retains loose gun laws. A 1980s amendment to the state Constitution holds that the right to bear arms “shall never be questioned” and gun-control measures have generally failed here, including when voters rejected a 2016 referendum to mandate background checks on all private gun sales.

Mills backed certain restrictions during her 2018 Democratic primary but backed off of those stances when she took office, dissuading members of her party from advancing restrictions. Around a dozen members of a legislative “Gun Safety Caucus” are still pushing for action even if it is unlikely those measures will advance.

The series of hoax mass-shooting threats against Maine schools this month along with mass shootings in Colorado on Saturday and at a Virginia Walmart on Tuesday make a clear case for “common-sense” gun legislation, said Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, who co-chairs the group and outlined top targets for the 2023 legislative session.

Various guns are displayed at a store on July 18, 2022, in Auburn. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

“I don’t know why we’re not treating this like we would any major public health emergency,” said Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who said she was working on a bill of her own.

Gun restrictions have always been a difficult sell in Augusta. A divided Legislature repealed a requirement for a concealed-handgun permit in 2014. Two years later, the referendum failed by a narrow 27,000 votes, driven by the more rural and conservative 2nd Congressional District. Limits now face opposition from a broad coalition of Republicans and some rural Democrats.

Mills cut a 2019 deal with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to turn a “red flag” bill from Millett into a widely accepted but limited “yellow flag” measure. She answered its campaign questionnaire by noting opposition to magazine limits, expanding background checks and other limits, with her spokesperson noting she has brought together diverse coalitions on gun issues.

“That is the approach she will continue to take with any proposal that comes before the Legislature,” Lindsay Crete said.

While Mills’ opposition stopped Democrats from advancing gun restrictions after the 2018 election, there is still desire for them in the rank and file. A 2021 background check bill from incoming House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, got 67 votes in the House, with all Republicans and 13 Democrats voting against it. Only seven Democratic senators backed it.

Opponents of new regulations often point out Maine’s relatively low gun homicide rate: 0.9 deaths per 100,000 each year, the second lowest rate in the country from 2015 to 2020, according to federal data. But Maine had the second-highest gun suicide rate in the Northeast behind Vermont from 2015 to 2020, according to that data.

Maine has not seen the level of gun homicides or mass shootings that many other states have, though it has had plenty of violent incidents. In 2020, a man killed three people and severely wounded a fourth in Washington County. Six years earlier, a Saco man shot his wife, stepson and two children before killing himself.

The state has taken consensus steps to address violence and school concerns, argued David Trahan, the executive director of the gun-rights sportsman’s alliance. His group supported the funding of a new school safety program and a bill passed this year providing grants and education around safe-storage devices. A new fight over restrictions will simply rile up activists on both sides and is unlikely to go anywhere absent Mills’ support, he said.

“I’ve found that the governor has kept her word with me and I believe 100 percent that she will keep her word,” Trahan said.

Supporting gun control is a “politically risky” stance here, said Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland. But he said that should not prevent action. He supports both expanding background checks and further regulating magazines.

“Lawmakers, we have a duty to do what’s right even when it’s not necessarily a politically popular thing,” Lookner said.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.