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Maine Voters to Weigh Issue of Background Checks Over Private Gun Sales


Judi Richardson doesn’t understand how a gun background check can be a burden to anyone.

She pages through a binder stuffed with newspaper clips that tell the story of the night in 2010 when a still-unidentified intruder broke into her 25-year-old daughter Darien’s Portland, Maine, apartment and shot six bullets into her body.

It brought Richardson and her husband, Wayne, to the South Portland office of Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, just weeks before voters across the state decide on the ballot initiative they co-sponsored. With enough citizen signatures, any proposed law can come up before voters in Maine.

Citizen referendums like Question 3 are often the most deeply personal – and fiercely debated -- issues voters face.

​Maine voters support the expanded background check ballot initiative 52 percent to 43 percent, according to a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll conducted in mid-October. But the poll also shows voter support for the measure has dropped by 9 percent since mid-September.

An estimated 40 percent of all firearms that change hands in the U.S. are transferred by unlicensed individuals, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. If voters pass Question 3, Maine will become the 19th state to extend background check requirements to at least some private firearms sales.

Judi and Wayne Richardson, the parents of shooting victim Darien Richardson.

Judi and Wayne Richardson, the parents of shooting victim Darien Richardson.

The fight for Question 3 began when the Richardsons discovered that the gun used to kill their daughter was involved in another murder but was untraceable because it had been sold privately without a background check.

“We said, 'Well, what do you mean there was no background check?' ” Richardson says. She’s repeated the story many times in these past six years, during meetings with state and national lawmakers, but the shock is still evident in her voice.

“In Maine, if you sell it privately, you don’t have to have a background check. You don’t have to conduct that if you’re not a licensed dealer. That’s the loophole we’re trying to close,” she says.

That should be an easy sell – a December 2015 survey found 89 percent of voters support requiring background checks on gun purchases at gun shows or online. Fifty-five percent of U.S. voters say “it’s too easy” to buy a gun in this country.

FILE - Judi Richardson, a citizen sponsor of a ballot initiative to require background checks for gun buyers, wears wrist bands bearing the names and places of victims of gun violence, at her home in South Portland, Maine.

FILE - Judi Richardson, a citizen sponsor of a ballot initiative to require background checks for gun buyers, wears wrist bands bearing the names and places of victims of gun violence, at her home in South Portland, Maine.

Grassroots initiative?

Here in Maine, hunting and gun clubs are a way of life woven into the state's identity. Proposed background checks on private gun sales are seen as a threat from outside political influences.

Dotting the back roads of this rural state’s small towns, yard signs declare, “Keep NYC Out of Maine! Vote No on Question 3!”

Much of the money for the campaign, including the constant stream of ads on local TV, comes from Michael Bloomberg, a known supporter of gun controls and former New York City mayor, critics say.

“We should be looked at as a model state – not as a state for Michael Bloomberg to come in and change somehow,” says David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “Over the last hundred years, a culture has developed. We live with firearms. We hunt. We recreationally shoot, and we do it safely.”

In fact, ballot initiatives require in-state sponsors, such as the Richardsons, as well as signatures from 10 percent of the population that voted for the governor in the last election – in this case, about 61,000 signatures.

Hank Snowman, a lifelong hunter who has lived in the area for 22 years, says he has no problem with the private sale background check part of the law, but has concerns with a part that says only immediate family members are allowed to borrow guns without a background check.

Hank Snowman, a lifelong hunter who has lived in the area for 22 years, says he has no problem with the private sale background check part of the law, but has concerns with a part that says only immediate family members are allowed to borrow guns without a background check.

Or meddling?

TV ads asking for support of Question 3 try to tap into Maine’s hunting culture by showing a hunter shooting in the woods with his grandson and talking about gun safety.

But members of the Windham Goreham Gun Club in rural Maine aren’t convinced.

“I’m concerned about the portion where I loan a friend a gun. It could be a problem for him and for me,” says Hank Snowman, a lifelong hunter who has lived in the area for 22 years. He says he has no problem with the private sale background check part of the law.

“I don’t like people coming in from out of state and meddling,” Snowman adds about the TV ads.

His concerns are with a part of the initiative that says only immediate family members are allowed to borrow guns without a background check.

Gun club member Luke House says the initiative is a ploy for even greater gun control. A lifelong Maine resident who thinks bear and moose hunting season is “like Christmas,” House sees the ballot question as offensive.

“They must think we’re really naïve or really stupid, or we just want to relinquish our heritage and our inalienable rights to protect ourselves," he said.

And that’s a viewpoint that Richardson finds difficult to understand.

“Why wouldn’t you want to have a background check? It doesn’t even make sense to me why that’s a hardship,” she says.

But in a battle over gun rights in the U.S., there is rarely a middle ground to be found.

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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