Maine could join 3 states that let residents waive their right to buy guns

Gun Rights

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AUGUSTA, Maine — When her two kids were younger, Donna Nathan took her family from their Massachusetts home to visit Maine each summer for camping, canoeing and other outdoor fun.

The summer trips ended as the kids grew older, and Nathan eventually moved to New Orleans in 2004 to be closer to her daughter. More than a decade later, Nathan sought out inpatient mental health treatment. After her voluntary stay ended, she left her home on June 26, 2018, drove to a nearby gun shop, purchased the only gun she would ever own and killed herself not long after leaving the store.

Nathan was 67 years old.

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Her death led to “Donna’s Law,” which allows people to put their own names on a “do-not-sell list” for firearms. Washington state had already adopted such a measure in 2018 before Nathan’s death, and Virginia and Utah later followed by passing similar laws.

Maine may join that group in adopting Donna’s Law, though not immediately. A bill from Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, came out last year and was amended this session into a 13-member task force that would study a process for Mainers to voluntarily waive their firearm rights.

The proposal received far less attention than the various gun control measures the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed after the Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston, including a 72-hour waiting period bill. But supporters said it is a key suicide prevention tool in a rural state with fairly high gun ownership rates.

In Maine, 158 of the 178 firearm deaths in 2021 were suicides, per the latest data. Doudera said she introduced her bill after conversations with NAMI Maine and a woman’s death by suicide in September inside Holden’s Maine Military Supply.

“It’s such a preventable tragedy that has repercussions that ripple down through the generations,” Doudera said.

Doudera was 14 when her 19-year-old cousin died by suicide. She said she has never forgotten coming home from school that day and seeing her parents’ faces streaked with tears.

“That’s what drives me,” Doudera said. “Remembering that day, the families I’ve met and realizing that suicide is an act that is often very impulsive.”

Other states such as Delaware are also considering versions of Donna’s Law, which has support from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, National Alliance on Mental Illness and other groups, while the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of Maine have argued vulnerable people could be coerced into signing away their firearm rights.

The bill from Doudera, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Gun Safety Caucus, passed each chamber in April along party lines, with Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, the lone Republican supporter. It did not receive funding despite its study only costing $3,050 next year, but Doudera said that is because she told colleagues she can work independently on finding answers over the summer before coming back with her proposal next year.

A key question Doudera brought up during committee hearings is which agency would handle the process allowing people to register for the confidential list. Before it was amended into a study, her bill would have let people submit their voluntary firearm rights waiver form to a county court clerk, who would send the form to Maine State Police to enter the information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

People could ask to be taken off the do-not-sell list after at least seven days, under the initial proposal. The three states with similar laws in place require in-person or mailed-in requests to either court clerks or law enforcement agencies, though Utah also now allows residents to apply through health care providers.

But Doudera said the Judicial Branch could not handle a do-not-sell list on its own, nor could agencies such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Still, she plans on working with Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck on the best path forward logistically.

Nathan’s daughter, Katrina Brees, who has advocated for states to pass the legislation named after her mother, said momentum is growing nationally.

“People are understanding the value of it and how it doesn’t negatively affect anybody,” Brees said.

Fredrick Vars, a University of Alabama law professor who is credited with coming up with the idea that later became known as Donna’s Law, has conducted numerous studies on do-not-sell lists. Vars said even in “gun-loving Alabama,” a survey of 200 psychiatric patients found 46 percent would register for a do-not-sell list, as would about 30 percent of general population respondents in a separate survey.

“The key thing is educating the public and getting people to sign up,” said Vars, who has bipolar disorder and has previously contemplated suicide.

Supporters of Doudera’s proposal include Lauren Jacobs, whose sister-in-law died by suicide with a gun in 2022. She was in her early 30s and a farmer, and Jacobs of Old Town described her as a “super creative” and “incredibly sensitive soul” who loved feeding people healthy food.

“When an adult is in crisis, there’s very little that family can do,” Jacobs said. “And having one more tool in a very scant toolbox is very worthwhile.”

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