Forum: No easy answers on gun control
Update: To view the forum, Mt. Blue TV has kindly provided this link: https://vimeo.com/59397505
FARMINGTON - A variety of opinions were expressed by both panelists and audience members at a well-attended forum that discussed gun violence and proposed gun control laws Thursday night at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Preventing another school massacre by enacting new laws to promote gun safety was debated by six panelists who expressed ideas that included backing a current legislative proposal for background checks on all gun sales, preventing the mentally ill from possessing guns and limiting the size of magazine clips.
"Our task is to keep guns in responsible hands," said J. Thomas Franklin, a retired lawyer and president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence. He added it was unfortunate that the issue has been framed by the National Rifle Association as a win-lose proposition, if additional gun control laws were to be passed.
Other panelists disagreed and urged a slowdown of the rush to enact legislation as long as emotion from the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting was running high. On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza killed his mother, then went to the school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 first-grade students and six staff members before killing himself.
"I was called three hours after the shooting with people asking me what I thought of banning assault weapons," said David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. "There's a rush to gun control. Instead, he said there needs to be time to investigate the Sandy Hook shootings and find out where the system failed.
State Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said the "U.S. Constitution shouldn't be taken lightly," alluding to the Second Amendment's firearms possession provision.
Ethan Strimling, said he has sponsored numerous gun safety bills in Maine when he was a state senator, disagreeing that the current discussion of new gun safety laws is anything new.
"Thirty seven kids a day are shot in this country," Strimling said. Gun violence needs to be reduced, but admitted it's a complicated issue.
The answer isn't banning assault weapons, said Barry Sturk, a firearms dealer and state lobbyist for firearms. He cited a 2004 U.S. Congress study that found assault weapons were used in less than a tenth of one percent of crimes. Handguns were much more likely to be used, he said.
Franklin said there are four long-term studies using large sample sizes showing restricted access to guns resulted in a reduction of violence. Those studies are taking place in "Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand. They don't have the gun violence we have," he said.
Harvell thought part of the problem is lack of gun safety education. "We learned to use firearms when the family went hunting or learned it in the military. Today, youths are learning to use firearms in simulators," Harvell said.
Preventing a dangerous mentally ill individual from possessing a firearm is one step, but there's also a need to have that information accessed in a shared data base, said Dr. Art Dingely, a psychiatrist. In most states, he said, that information is not available.
With background checks, the federal government has a record of where the firearms are," Trahan said, and added, "it's a concern."
"The common denominator is the weapon used," Strimling said. Background checks are needed for everyone. Currently, 40 percent of total gun purchases in Maine are through private sales and don't require a background check.
"We don't need more data; we're got Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Newtown," Strimling said listing the places where mass shootings took place. "Background checks make sense." He said there's a paranoia out there that if you start talking about gun safety laws, it turns into guns being taken from law-abiding citizens.
Trahan countered that there are "20,000 gun restrictions out there already." He also noted "there's a general feeling of not trusting the government - that's the reality."
Sturk argued "if the mindset is they're going to kill someone, what's going to stop that individual from breaking in next door? If you've got the mindset, it's going to happen."
The vast majority are responsible, law-abiding citizens and Maine is thought to be a very safe place, Franklin said. But, drug dealers are coming into the state in increasing numbers to buy guns because of lax state law.
"We have a growing problem we have to address, he said. "Maine is changing and we need modern and sensible gun laws," Franklin said.
Trahan asked Franklin if the laws proposed for background checks for all sales, preventing the mentally ill from possessing guns and limiting the size of magazine clips would "be enough if passed?"
Franklin paused and then said no. "OK, that's the problem. It's the little steps to big steps," Trahan said.
"It's the fear that drives the debate," Harvell said.
Strimling asked Trahan if he was willing to look at the proposed laws" for possible endorsement.
"That's how Americans have lost their freedom," Trahan replied.
Strimling asked Trahan directly: "Do you support background checks?"
Trahan said, "We don't need to focus the tragedy onto guns," and added the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine has taken no position on the background check issue. He said crimes, gangs, illegal drug use are all fundamental problems in society that need to be fixed. "Solve it at its root," Trahan said.
Audience members worried that the background data base may prove fallible, that there are already too many gun laws, they "don't want anything else taken away," and the need to do something to make sure those who shouldn't have guns, don't, were voiced.
"We need a reasonable conversation," Strimling said, noting no new gun regulation laws have been passed in 20 years in Maine.
"We depend on firearms for protection and we're not going to give it up without the facts," Trahan said.
Most the bills proposed in the Legislature "come from you through your legislator, Harvell said to those attending. "All the emotion you see here ends up in the Legislature."