Maine Voices: How would Mainers vote on background checks now?

Gun Rights

From the beginning, the issue of guns in this country has been framed around the rights of gun owners.

That right has been treated as a “sacred cow.” Yet the Maine constitution, in Article 1, Section 1, refers to “natural rights … all people … have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty … and of pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.”

So I should be able to go to church or the grocery store or to a concert and not have to wonder if I’ll make it home safely.

 Gun rights advocates love to quote Second Amendment language, yet conveniently ignore the first phrase which reads, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” The framers believed a militia was necessary because they saw a standing army as a threat to a free society. 

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For most of the country’s history, firearms regulations have been uncontroversial. There was little resistance to laws prohibiting mail delivery of handguns and possession of sawed-off shotguns and machine guns. The unanimous 1939 decision in the United States v. Miller held that an individual did not have the right to keep and bear a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun because that type of gun had no “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia.”

Before the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, courts had ruled that the right of individual citizens to bear arms existed only within the context of participation in the militia. In Heller, the court overturned that precedent, yet even then the late Justice Antonin Scalia said: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

Fifteen years later, it seems as though gun rights advocates are aiming for exactly that reality.

 The late Justice John Paul Stevens, commenting in the Atlantic magazine on the Heller decision of 2008 that gave a person the right to possess firearms independent of service in a state militia, labeled that decision the “most clearly incorrect decision that the Supreme Court announced during my tenure on the court.” The court split 5-4 on Heller. Justice Stevens contended that the Heller decision misread the meaning of the Second Amendment and failed to respect the settled precedent of Miller.

 So how have assault rifles, designed to quickly kill significant numbers of human beings, been allowed to proliferate? The National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers spend enormous amounts of money in Washington to influence gun laws. While the NRA was founded as an organization devoted to hunting, conservation, and marksmanship, it has morphed to become one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country. Its single focus, now, is blocking any attempts to institute regulations of any kind on gun ownership.

And so we stand by as the carnage from mass shooting events continues.

 Maine had been spared from a mass shooting event until this past week. It’s not any safer here. We’ve just been lucky. It’s safe to say it will happen again. Maine’s long tradition of hunting and gun ownership can exist alongside commonsense gun regulations. No one is trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens.

 In 2016, voters in Maine rejected a citizen referendum to institute universal background checks.

Seven years and hundreds of mass shootings later, I can’t help but wonder how Mainers would vote now.

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