In this Feb. 15, 2023, file photo, demonstrators hold signs to protest gun violence at a student sit-in at the Michigan Capitol building following Monday's mass shooting at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan. Credit: Brice Tucker / The Flint Journal via AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Republicans on Wednesday supported a state ban on so-called straw purchases of guns, a key element of an upcoming bill being negotiated between a gun-rights group and Gov. Janet Mills’ administration.

The discussion among members of the Legislature’s public safety panel was a good sign that some form of gun legislation will move forward after April shootings in which a police said 34-year-old Joseph Eaton, who had an extensive criminal history, killed four people including his parents in Bowdoin and then wounded three more on Interstate 295 in Yarmouth.

Maine stands out nationally as a Democratic-controlled state with relatively loose gun laws. Mills, a Democrat, has resisted several gun-control proposals from more progressive members of her party. Last month’s shootings pushed her administration into talks with the gun-rights Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a group she has often aligned with during her tenure.

Straw purchases are expected to be one major part of that package. The backing of the idea from Republicans on the legislative committee showed that there is consensus on the issue. While Democrats have their own farther-reaching version and many progressives will want to go further on guns, a negotiator said it was a sign of things to come in the bigger bill.

“That’s a good thing,” David Trahan, the executive director of the sportsman’s alliance, said of the consensus on the issue.

Straw purchases, which are sales or transfers of firearms to people prohibited from possessing them, are illegal federally and carry strong criminal penalties. While felons are barred from having guns under both federal and state laws, a ban on straw purchases in Maine would allow police here to arrest buyers that they run into in local cases.

Eaton was a convicted felon who had been released from prison four days before the shootings, meaning he was prohibited from residing in a home with guns. Police have not said where and how Eaton obtained the weapons used in the shootings but have said more than one firearm was found in the Bowdoin home.

He had already been convicted in Florida of having a weapon as a felon. In 2014, he also wanted to move to Florida in 2014 to live with his parents while completing probation for a crime committed in Maine. That was blocked because his father refused to give up guns that were in that home, court documents show.

Under a measure from Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, straw purchases would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and $2,000 fine. Democrats and Republicans on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted to pass different versions of the bill, with the Republican amendment backed by the sportsman’s group seeking to clarify antique firearms and muzzleloaders are not covered and to better align language with federal law.

Rep. Donald Ardell, R-Monticello, said he viewed Carney’s measure as “unnecessary” given existing federal statutes. Ardell is also sponsoring measures to  limit the government and shipping companies from tracking firearm and ammunition purchasers.

While the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of Maine opposed the original version of the bill, supporters included the Maine Sheriffs’ Association and Moms Demand Action. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said in testimony submitted in April that Maine’s 16 sheriffs do not all agree on many firearm-related measures but that Carney’s proposed straw purchase ban “has all sheriffs in agreement.”

More partisan gun-related bills may not receive the governor’s backing, such as a Democratic-backed measure to require a 72-hour waiting period for firearm buyers, a plan from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, to require background checks for private sales and a proposal with bipartisan sponsors to restore firearm rights and hunting privileges to people who have waited 10 years since completing certain non-violent felony sentences.

Lynn Ellis, legislative director for the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said her pro-gun control group’s top priorities are the background check and 72-hour waiting period proposals, but the coalition is pleased to see the bipartisan support for some version of a straw purchase ban.

“I think it was pretty unanimous that we do need to not allow prohibited people to get firearms,” Ellis said.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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Billy Kobin

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...