Maine Democrats meet privately with ATF official as advocates work to build support for gun safety reforms

Gun Rights

AUGUSTA — Democrats and gun safety advocates worked to shore up support Wednesday for a package of gun safety reforms in the closing weeks of the session.

Democrats met in private Wednesday for nearly 90 minutes with a federal firearms regulator for a briefing about existing regulations, a move criticized by Republicans who passed up an offer to hold a similar meeting and said they would only do so in public.

Democrats also arranged a public meeting for the full Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon to hear from an anti-domestic violence group that supports the reforms.

The meetings come a day before a key committee meeting and possible  vote on a package of gun safety reforms.

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Also Wednesday, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition launched a fundraising effort to raise $235,000 for an advertising campaign to advocate for new gun safety laws after the Lewiston shooting.

The group is pushing for a 72-hour waiting period and expanded background checks for gun purchases, a ban on bump stocks and other devices to make semi-automatic guns fire like fully automatic weapons, and a red flag law to temporarily take firearms away from people deemed to pose a risk.

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All of those proposals have faced opposition from Republicans, who argue that none of the proposals would have stopped Robert Card Jr. from killing 18 people and injuring 13 others during a shooting rampage last fall at a bowling alley and a bar.

On Tuesday, Republicans used an interim report released by a commission investigating the shooting to pushback against changes proposed to Maine’s yellow flag law.

Republicans also have argued that a waiting period for purchases would make it harder for domestic violence victims to protect themselves and that the proposal for banning rapid-fire devices shows a lack of understanding about how firearms work.

Democrats serving on the committee reviewing the gun safety bills moved Wednesday to counter those criticisms by arranging meetings with experts on domestic violence and firearms.

The Democrat-led Judiciary Committee initially scheduled full committee meetings for Wednesday afternoon to hear from an official with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

The full committee meeting with the ATF representative was canceled, however, after Democrats agreed to hold the session in private at the request of the federal agency It wasn’t clear why representatives of the ATF asked for the meeting to be in private.

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Open meetings laws prohibit the committee from meeting together in a private session, so the ATF representative offered to meet privately in separate sessions with Democrats and Republicans. Party caucuses are routinely held behind closed doors.

Republicans criticized Democrats for agreeing to meet with the ATF in private.

Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, said she spoke with her fellow Republicans serving on the committee and they plan to skip the informational meeting because they believe it should be public.

“We all agree that transparency is of the utmost importance, and we have no desire to meet with the ATF behind closed doors,” Poirier said. “We’re totally against any private meeting. We want transparency.”

Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, who co-chairs the committee, said Wednesday morning that the private sessions would go ahead and were intended to answer questions that came up during last week’s work session on the bills.

Carney said the ATF did not give a reason why they wanted to meeting in private.

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A spokesperson for the Senate Democrats said it was Carney’s understanding that the U.S. Department of Justice would only allow James P. Vann, ATF’s deputy director for enforcement programs and services, to brief lawmakers in private.

Carney defended the private session, saying it would be “an opportunity” for all lawmakers to have their questions answered, even if it was in separate sessions and outside of public view.

“I think it’s really important for everybody to have clear information,” Carney said. “I would hope (Republicans) would they would take this opportunity to get that clear information.”

A spokesperson for the ATF’s Boston office said he was unaware of any presentation to the state Legislature.

Meanwhile, gun safety advocates are planning to mount a public push to convince lawmakers to support a slate of gun safety and mental health bills, saying “we have an incredible opportunity right now to pass the strongest package of gun safety legislation in decades — maybe ever.”

Betsy Sweet, a lobbyist and former gubernatorial candidate, said in a fundraising email Wednesday morning that the coalition is looking to spend $20,000 a month in March, April and May on digital ads, phone calls, emails and a petition effort to win the support of Gov. Janet Mills and undecided lawmakers.

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The coalition is also raising $50,000 for two rounds of direct mailers and an additional $125,000 to sustain a staff of eight people to organize rallies, lobbying days, canvassing events and other actions.

“This budget is ambitious, and I wouldn’t be asking you to chip in if this wasn’t a once in a generation opportunity,” Sweet said. “If we don’t do this now, I am not sure we ever can. Unlike the NRA, we don’t have millions of dollars from gun manufacturers to back us.”

A spokesperson for the coalition said the campaign had been planned since December and was not in response to an interim report from an independent commission investigating the Lewiston shooting. That report faulted the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s office for not using existing laws to take Card into custody before the shooting.

Republicans seized on the report Tuesday, saying it shows Maine’s laws could have adequately address the threat Card posed, if they had been fully utilized.

The Judiciary Committee is planning a public information session Wednesday afternoon about “firearms and domestic violence” with Francine Garland Stark, the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Republicans have claimed that a waiting period would make it more difficult for domestic violence victims to purchase a firearm for self defense. But Stark has repeatedly pushback on that claim, saying the presence of a firearm in a household with domestic violence makes it more dangerous for a victim.

This story will be updated.


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