Maine lawmakers split on party lines over bill to allow lawsuits against gunmakers, sellers

Gun Rights

People hold signs calling for increased gun regulation during a news conference Wednesday at the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

A legislative committee split along party lines Wednesday over a proposal to allow Maine victims of gun violence or the attorney general to sue firearms makers and dealers who irresponsibly market or sell their products.

The Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 to recommend against passage of the bill sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth. Of the nine lawmakers present for the vote, Republicans were united against the bill and Democrats all voted to endorse it.

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But the outcome was not conclusive because three Democrats who were absent have 48 hours to register their votes on the original bill or on amended versions. Either way, the narrowly divided committee vote means the bill is expected to be debated on the House floor in the coming weeks.

Gun manufacturers have a certain amount of immunity from lawsuits under a federal law signed by President George W. Bush in 2005. But that federal law contains exceptions, including in cases of defective firearms or when businesses knowingly violate state statutes regarding the sale or marketing of a firearm. Millett’s bill would establish state standards and provide a basis for those lawsuits to move forward in Maine.

Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, and some lawmakers and gun safety advocates are clamoring for new gun restrictions in the wake of the Oct. 25 shooting in Lewiston by an Army reservist, who used an AR-10 assault rifle to shoot at least some of the victims. A total of 18 people were killed and 13 wounded at two locations.

Millett’s bill was introduced months before the Lewiston shootings and it would not offer any additional legal avenues for those victims or their families.

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But it has since taken on heightened significance in light of the deadliest mass shooting in state history. And it’s the first of several gun safety bills expected to be taken up in the new legislative session.

Gun safety advocates flooded the State House on the opening day of the session to call for more gun control legislation, including a statewide ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, universal background checks and a stronger law allowing police to temporarily confiscate someone’s firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Gun reform activists and supporters fill the stairs at the State House as lawmakers return for the start of the second regular session of the 131st Legislature on Jan. 3, in Augusta. Gun rights activists were also present at the State House. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills has said she is open to new gun safety laws, though she hasn’t provided any specifics. She formed an independent commission to study what happened before, during and immediately after the Lewiston shooting.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, have both submitted bill titles for possible gun legislation, but the details have not yet been published.

The party-line committee vote on Wednesday reflects the difficulty of enacting new gun safety legislation in a state with a long history of gun ownership and a strong hunting tradition, even among Democrats, who emerged from a 40-minute closed door meeting to cast their votes without offering any comment.

Committee Republicans assailed the proposal as an infringement on an individual’s constitutional right to bear arms, which under Maine’s Constitution “shall never be questioned.” They criticized some of the bill’s provisions as vague, saying it would give the attorney general too much discretion to initiate an investigation or prosecution.

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“It seems completely subjective to me, and I don’t think we should have subjective arbiters in statute,” said Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris. “It should be based firmly on the law and the constitution, not the opinions of one appointed constitutional officer.”

Attorney Margaret Groban, a former federal prosecutor and adjunct professor at the University of Maine School of Law, pushed back against those claims, saying the bill is modeled after existing consumer protection laws and would not infringe on constitutional rights. People would still be able to purchase firearms from dealers who follow the law, she said. She noted the federal law granting immunity to gunmakers contains exemptions for laws like the one proposed.

“I think it’s important to protect Mainers who have had proximate harm to them as a result of (Federal Firearms Licensees) or manufacturers who are unscrupulous and do unconscionable things (and) that there is a right of action for them,” she said. “This is completely consistent with federal law and consentient with the Second Amendment. I don’t think Mainers should have to suffer because we don’t have this reasonable law in place.”

L.D. 1696 was introduced last year and opposed by the National Rifle Association and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a powerful lobbying group for gun owners. Millett, who did not attend the work session, rewrote the bill prior to Wednesday’s work session.

The bill would allow either a victim of gun violence or the state attorney general to file a civil lawsuit against a gunmaker, distributor or others in the industry who market their weapons and accessories to minors, people prohibited from possessing firearms or “in any manner that is unconscionable, unscrupulous, oppressive or deceptive.”

If approved, Maine would join eight other states with similar laws, including New York, California and Colorado, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

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Groban provided the committee with several examples about how the law could be used, highlighting an incident that happened a decade ago in Maine.

In 2013, Joseph Leighton, 51, of Falmouth, tried to purchase a firearm from Cabela’s in Scarborough but was denied even though he passed a background check, because the clerk thought he was acting agitated and erratically. Leighton returned the next day and was able to purchase the weapon, which was later used to kill his mother.

Groban also noted that Remington was held civilly liable for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and forced to pay families of the victims $73 million, because the state’s highest court found the manufacturer had marketed the guns for troubled people like the shooter, saying that owning an assault-style weapon was akin to getting one’s “man card reissued.”

While committee Democrats generally supported the bill, both Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Adam Lee, D-Auburn, offered amendments that could be considered when the bill moves to the House floor in the coming weeks.

Carney’s amendment won the support of several members and would eliminate the minimum fine of $25,000 per violation, while keeping the maximum fine of $100,000. She would also limit violations to unconscionable or deceptive marketing or sales, by eliminating the words unscrupulous and oppressive.

Lee’s amendment would eliminate most of the bill and only establish a private right of action for “any person who has suffered damages in this state that are proximately caused by the reckless, unconscionable, deceptive or intentional actions of a firearm industry member” to recover those damages.

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