Police respond to an armed confrontation at the Brewer Walmart on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Police in Brewer are working through a Republican lawmaker on changes to gun laws that aim to help them stop an increasing number of armed drug traffickers in Maine.

Sen. Peter Lyford of Eddington has put two bills in on the recommendation of the department that would increase penalties for illegal weapon possession and mimic a federal crime by allowing police here to charge those who buy guns for people barred from having them.

Maine stands out as a relatively liberal state with some of the nation’s loosest gun laws. Gov. Janet Mills has dissuaded her fellow Democrats from advancing gun control measures since she took office in 2019. Some progressives are pushing those types of measures again this year, but the farthest-reaching ones look unlikely to get past Mills’ veto pen.

This attempt could find consensus in Augusta. Two groups on both sides of the gun debate said they did not yet have stances on the bills but indicated agreement with Lyford and police on the problems facing law enforcement. The effort comes after two different mass shootings in California on Saturday and Monday that killed 18 altogether.

One of the bills would allow the state to charge Mainers who purchase a gun for someone else. Many who make such “straw purchases” here are out-of-state drug traffickers who persuade Mainers to buy them guns, said Sgt. Chris Martin, Brewer’s deputy chief. This is already a federal crime, but it is usually not prosecuted except in high-level cases.

The second bill would turn misdemeanor crimes around unlawful firearm possession into felonies, allowing stronger enforcement against an increasingly serious problem of armed drug dealers operating in Maine with guns they don’t legally own. It is a problem that has grown amid the opioid crisis and the spread of fentanyl throughout the state and country.

“We need to recognize the relationship between the drug business, trafficking, organized crime, with the violence associated with it,” Martin said.

Martin has also recommended that the bill change state law to not define marijuana users as people prohibited from owning firearms. The current language in state law mimics federal law, saying that anybody who is an “unlawful user or addicted” to a federally controlled substance is committing a crime.

Lyford is conservative on guns: He does not support common gun-control measures, including banning certain classes of firearms or restricting high-capacity magazines, but he said he is supporting these limits in order to help police fight crime.

“We need law and order in this country,” Lyford said. “Anything I can do to help [Maine police officers], I will.”

Any new proposed limits on guns often draw crowds of gun-rights advocates to protest in Augusta. 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 same data.

The full text of Lyford’s bills has not been released yet. The gun-rights Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine will put all bills on the issue before a committee and ensure gun owners who didn’t do anything wrong aren’t affected, said David Trahan, the group’s executive director.

“The intentions, I think from everyone, is that felons who are prohibited should not be getting access to a firearm,” he said.

There are several other measures under consideration by lawmakers that appear to do the same thing as Lyford’s, noted Lynn Ellis, legislative director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, a gun control advocacy group, which will likely support a universal background check bill from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and a bill that would impose a 72-hour waiting period before buying guns.

But generally, she said the group sees prohibited people as a problem.

“We will be supporting bills that look at tightening up regulations on keeping guns from prohibited persons,” Ellis said.