Time for Maine to hold a referendum on guns

Ethan Strimling

Since Friday’s devastating news, I have been asked over and over what we can do to get some sanity into our public policy around guns. I have now concluded that our best path is to go directly to the people through a referendum.

As a state senator from 2002 to 2008, I worked on countless bills to protect the public through common-sense gun regulation. In virtually every case, the will and safety of the public was cast aside and the Legislature killed the bill. In most cases, the bills were not even allowed to come to the floor for a vote.

In 2004, Rep. Stan Gerzofsky sponsored a law that required background checks for the sale of all guns at gun shows. It would have ensured that no one in Maine could legally sell a gun to someone at a gun show who was not allowed to purchase that weapon. For the first time in Maine’s history, we got the bill out of committee with an “ought to pass” recommendation. Despite this momentum, the bill was never allowed to even come up for consideration by the full Legislature, and it died.

In 2005, I sponsored an assault weapons ban to replace the expiring federal ban. The ban had been in place for 10 years, so we were doing nothing more than extending current law. By extending, we would have ensured that people like the Connecticut killer could not have purchased or brought into Maine the weapon or magazines he used to massacre the children in Connecticut (which it appears may have been built in Maine). The bill failed to receive a single supportive committee vote.

In 2007, Sen. Margaret Craven submitted a bill to create a short waiting period before someone under the age of 21 could purchase a shotgun. She submitted the bill in the wake of a tragedy in which a young man in her district bought a shotgun on a Friday and shot himself that weekend. The bill was killed on the floor of the Senate, 28-5, and now anyone in Maine can purchase a gun in the heat of anger or depression without any time to cool down.

In 2008, the Legislature killed a bill a group of high school students asked me to sponsor requiring dealers to provide trigger locks with the sale of all handguns. Imagine if the mother of the murderer in Connecticut had placed trigger locks on her guns that he couldn’t unlock? The bill died without debate.

All these bills have one thing in common. They were not supported by our elected body, but they are supported by the people. Numerous polls have shown that people overwhelmingly support background checks, banning assault weapons, waiting periods, and better gun safety in our homes. Even National Rifle Association members agree.

Therefore, it is time to take these issues straight to the ballot. I am sure we will have courageous legislators who will submit meaningful legislation this session, but there is no reason to believe, even in the face of 6- and 7-year-old children being slaughtered, that the Maine Legislature is prepared to do something different. After all, we have had 19 mass killings with guns in the past five years, and no action has been taken in Maine or Congress. So it is up to us to gather the signatures and force the Legislature’s hand.

I am not pretending this will be easy. The NRA and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine will pour tons of resources into defeating even the most reasonable public safety law. But my sense is that a smart campaign would win. Choose the issue carefully; understand the arguments deeply; and pull no punches when the campaign begins.

But also understand that even a loss at the ballot box would be better than the complete inaction we have today. Changing hearts and minds politically takes many paths. We lost gay marriage 32 times at the ballot box, but today we have equal marriage in nine states because we chose many paths, including the courts, Legislatures and now the four referenda that won this past November.

Additionally, even in a loss, we would have tremendous data to take to legislators. If 45 percent voted for a pro-gun safety position at the ballot box that means there would be numerous districts throughout the state where we could show legislators that their constituents want the legislation passed. Forty-five percent would be a huge step forward from the percent often received in our Legislature.

But most importantly, we can’t wait for Newtown, Aurora, Minneapolis, Oak Creek, Seattle, Seal Beach, Manchester, Tucson, Fort Hood, Binghamton, Geneva County, Omaha, Carthage, Henderson, or Virginia Tech to occur in Maine before we act.

Posted by Ethan Strimling