PORTLAND, ME —
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 last six years, starting with 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’s a moment that brought Richardson and her husband, Wayne, to the South Portland office of Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, just weeks before voters across the state will make a decision on the ballot initiative they co-sponsored. Maine’s unusually open system for ballot questions means that, with enough citizen signatures, any proposed law can come up before voters. Citizen referendums like Question 3 are often the most deeply personal – and fiercely debated - issues to go before voters every election.
For the Richardsons, the fight for Question 3 began with the discovery that the gun that killed 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, while testifying on preventing gun violence and even with President Obama – 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.
An estimated 40 percent of all firearms transferred in the U.S. are transferred by unlicensed individuals, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. If voters pass Question 3 in November, Maine will become the 19th state to extend background check requirements to include at least some private firearms sales.
Upstairs, while Richardson talks, a team of volunteers work phones to educate voters on the reasons they should vote yes. Nationwide polling on the issue shows that should be an easy sell – a December 2015 survey found voters support requiring background checks on gun purchases at gun shows or online 89-9 percent, with 55 percent of U.S. voters saying “it’s too easy” to buy a gun in this country.
But here in Maine – where hunting and gun clubs are a way of life woven into the state's identity – a ballot question proposing background checks on private gun sales is seen as a threat from outside political influences. The signs of that fierce debate dot the back roads of this rural state’s small towns, with yard signs declaring “Keep NYC Out of Maine! Vote No on Question 3!”
Critics point out that much of the money for the campaign, including the constant stream of ads on local TV, comes from known gun control supporter and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Ballot initiatives require in-state sponsors like the Richardsons along with signatures from 10 percent of the population that voted for governor in the last election – about 61,000 signatures in Maine. But even those signatures have come under scrutiny.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, is one of those opponents who says the initiative is not even close to being a grassroots citizens' campaign from within the state.
“Over the last hundred years, a culture has developed. We live with firearms. We hunt. We recreationally shoot and we do it safely,” he says. “We should be looked at as a model state – not as a state for Michael Bloomberg to come in and change somehow.”
Trahan’s organization has worked to educate local hunters and gun owners on the details of Question 3 in the lead-up to Election Day because, as he sees it, the initiative is an effort to destroy Maine’s hunting culture “because that’s the community that defends the right to own firearms most aggressively.”
The TV ads asking for support of Question 3 try to tap into that hunting and gun culture by showing an older Maine hunter shooting in the woods with his grandson and talking about gun safety.
But those images haven’t convinced members of the Windham Goreham Gun Club in rural Maine. Some of them say they are waiting for an upcoming talk by Trahan to make up their minds, but all of them express concern about a portion of the law that would complicate long-standing Maine traditions of sharing guns among friends and extended family members.
“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, but he would like to see more training on gun safety rather than a debate over loopholes. And he knows for certain that he won’t be swayed by TV ads bought with money that’s not from Maine.
“I don’t like people coming in from out of state and meddling,” he says.
Gun club member Luke House goes even further, saying the initiative is a ploy for even greater gun control. A lifelong Maine resident who says bear and moose hunting season is “like Christmas” and doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as a gun show “loophole,” 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 says. “It’s angering and it’s frustrating because we didn’t ask for this. We didn’t ask to fight for our rights.”
And that’s a viewpoint that Judi Richardson finds difficult to understand back in the Question 3 offices in Portland.
“Why wouldn’t you want to make sure that person you’re selling to is able to have that gun? 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 the rights and wrongs of gun rights in the U.S., there is rarely a middle ground to be found.