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Gun Control Debate A Hot Topic in Maine
01/10/2013   Reported By: Samantha Fields

Vice President Joe Biden announced today that he will present President Barack Obama with proposals to stem gun violence by Tuesday. Those proposals will likely address a range of issues, from limits on guns and ammunition to background checks and mental health reforms. Here in Maine, legislators and activists on all sides of the gun control debate are also gearing up for what is likely to be an active and ongoing conversation on the state level.

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Not quite a month has passed since the shootings in Newtown, and the Maine legislature is only few days into the new session. But Republican State Representative James Gillway, of Searsport, said it's clear that the tragedy in Connecticut will be coming up at the Statehouse.

Gillway: "We were told yesterday that there's upwards of 60 bills being presented, all on some form of gun control. Or related to it."

No matter how many bills are submitted, gun violence is shaping up to be a significant part of the conversation this session. Democratic State Representative Jeffrey McCabe, of Skowhegan, said the specific bills he's aware of at this point encompass a range of issues.

McCabe: "Anything from restrictions on firearms as far as ownership, to an improvement in the background check process, to school safety and other issues around that. And a real hard look at how people obtain guns as well."

Conversations about gun control are not new in Maine. But historically, getting any sort of gun legislation passed in the state has proven a difficult proposition - regardless of which party is in control at the Statehouse.

But George Smith, an outdoor writer and former executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, said the events in Newtown have changed the landscape. Even in a state where a lot of people own guns, and there is relatively little violence.

Smith: "This time, I think all of us who are gun owners and advocates have to be willing to discuss all of the subjects. Take nothing off the table. Let's look at everything. And I'm certainly willing to do that. I think most of the people I've talked to have open minds about all of it."

But Smith said the serious gun issues are most likely to be decided at the federal level.

Smith: "Things like magazine limits and any types of bans, background checks. We may have similar bills in Maine, but we can't really do this ourselves as a state."

A number of states and towns are moving forward with different kinds of legislation. New York is one. Governor Andrew Cuomo used his State of the State address to call for a ban on so-called assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, and other measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. New York lawmakers may vote on a package of legislation as soon as next week.

Next month in Maine, several police chiefs from around the state will be getting together to discuss gun control and gun rights. One of the primary issues on the agenda will be the state's open carry law. As the law currently stands, it is legal in Maine to openly carry a firearm in a public place. There are certain exceptions to that, open carry is prohibited in places like schools and courthouses. It's a law that Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck (sauce-chuck) said has been problematic for police for years.

Sauschuck: "Exactly 10 days after the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, a Portland resident is walking through the streets in broad daylight with an assault weapon. And was out on the streets for a stroll for approximately 3 hours. And we had a minimum of 65 calls from citizens who were concerned. Terrified, quite frankly, not really sure what's going on."

Under existing open carry law the resident was within his rights. While there is not currently any proposal from the chiefs, or anyone else, to limit the open carry law, Sauschuck said it will be a piece of the conversation.

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