Gun-control initiatives pass in West Coast states. Why not in Maine?

Gun-control advocates celebrated a three-pronged West Coast victory, but their East Coast loss serves as a lesson for the road ahead.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
Bob Hagopian works in his gun shop Oct. 20 in downtown Madison, Me. In one of several surprises during Tuesday's election, Maine voters shot down a ballot initiative for new gun regulations that supporters said would have closed a loophole on background checks.

Three of the four states considering ballot initiatives to tighten their gun-control laws approved their measures as expected Tuesday. But voters in Maine bucked the trend, rejecting expanded background checks for private firearms sale.

Proponents of the measures hailed their victories in California, Nevada, and Washington State as evidence that their patchwork approach to reforming gun-control laws nationwide, one state at a time, is gaining steam. The defeat of Maine's well-funded ballot initiative (52 percent to 48 percent), however, could serve as a lesson for those pushing for stricter gun policy.

"I think there's two lessons that gun control advocates should take out of this," Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, tells The Christian Science Monitor. First, they should be wary of coming across as "meddlesome big-city outsiders" running a campaign in a state that is not their own, he says. Second, they should carefully craft proposed policies to avoid unintended consequences.

Everytown for Gun Safety – former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's advocacy group that financed most of Maine's $6 million campaign, as the Bangor Daily News reported – failed to fully appreciate the fact that responsible gun ownership has long been commonplace in Maine, contributing significantly to the local culture, Dr. Brewer says.

"Maine also has a longstanding tradition of opposition to forces external to Maine trying to interfere in what is seen as Maine’s business, to the point where people who are not from Maine – and even people who live in Maine now, but were born elsewhere – are not considered true Mainers. They are 'from Away,'" Brewer adds.

Maine's ballot initiative, known as Question 3, had aimed to close a loophole and prevent felons, domestic abusers, and those with mental illness from acquiring firearms. By requiring background checks on private sales and swaps, including online listings classifieds, the state could keep guns away from dangerous people, reducing gun violence in Maine and other nearby states, proponents told the Portland Press Herald.

But opponents noted that the language of the proposal could have broader implications, perhaps even making it illegal to loan a firearm to a friend while on a hunting trip together without a background check. 

Brewer says voters would have been more likely to green-light the proposal if its language had been more carefully crafted to regulate sales activity alone. Others contend the problems run deeper than the wording.

"While the particular language included in Question 3 was especially egregious and would have in fact created a lot of unintentional criminals, the fact remains that the premise behind Question 3 is completely unenforceable without a universal registry of all firearms in the state," Krysta West, director of communications for The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Portland, tells the Monitor in an email.

Other states that have enacted similar measures have not seen any benefit because the measures target law-abiding citizens, not criminals, Ms. West adds. "We already have adequate laws on the books. If people want to see a reduction in crime, it's time that we start enforcing them to their fullest extent," she says.

Regardless of their loss in New England, gun control advocates were celebrating Wednesday their three-state victory on the West Coast. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who led the campaign in his state, called the vote "historic progress to reduce gun violence."

"It was a repudiation of the National Rifle Assn. and the gun lobby. They lost badly," Lieutenant Governor Newsom told The Los Angeles Times. Newsom described the initiative as "the beginning of a national debate" on whether felons should be required to relinquish their guns and whether background checks should be required to purchase not only firearms but ammunition as well.

California's ballot initiative outlaws magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, criminalizes a failure to report guns lost or stolen, requires a background check to buy ammunition, and enables the state to seize guns from convicted felons in some circumstances.

The measure that passed in Washington State, where voters had authorized expanded background checks in 2014, also established extreme protection orders, a process whereby police and others can keep firearms away from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others, as The Seattle Times reported. (Only four other states have similar laws, including California, Indiana, Texas, and Connecticut, as The Washington Post reported.)

In Nevada, an initiative to expand background checks to private gun sales and swaps passed with a far narrower margin than pre-election polling had predicted. Robert Uithoven, state director of the political action committee NRA Nevadans for Freedom, described the final results as a "razor-thin margin" worth celebrating because his team lost by less than expected, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Fewer than 10,000 votes, out of 1.1 million counted, separated those in favor of the proposal from those who opposed it.

Nevada's initiative, like Maine's, was heavily funded by Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety, which poured nearly $11 million of the more than $15 million raised by a Nevada committee pushing the measure.

West, with The Maine Heritage Policy Center, says Nevada's culture and demography are quite different from her state. Nevada has a larger population, it's more urban, and its violent crime rate is much higher than Maine's. Despite its success in Nevada, Bloomberg's push was halted in Maine because it sought to solve a problem the state doesn't have, she says.

"This is a great, safe place to live and raise a family, and that's because of our tradition of firearm ownership, not in spite of it," West adds.

[Editor's note: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the additional circumstances in which a background check would be required under Maine's defeated proposal.]

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