PORTLAND — Three months after gun-control legislation failed in Congress, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, visited City Hall Saturday and urged supporters to “never stop fighting” for a bill expanding background checks of gun buyers.
“Be bold, be courageous. The nation is counting on you,” Giffords said in a brief address to more than 100 people who filled the State of Maine Room.
She and Kelly head Americans for Responsible Solutions, a political action committee formed after then-Congresswoman Giffords was shot and critically wounded in January 2011. Six people were killed in the mass shooting by Jared Loughner, and another dozen were injured.
Giffords, who remains partially paralyzed after the attack, entered the room Saturday without assistance and was greeted by a standing ovation.
She and Kelly are trying to rally support for another vote on the so-called Manchin-Toomey Bill, which would have expanded federal requirements for background checks of gun purchasers, including those who buy online and at gun shows. In April, the bill failed by six votes to win approval in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was one of four Republican senators who crossed party lines to vote for the bill. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also voted in its favor.
On Saturday, Kelly said that national polls show widespread public support for expanded background checks – as much as 90 percent of Americans, according to some sources.
“You know what else polls at 90 percent? Free money and ice cream,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
The goal of expanded background checks isn’t to infringe on the rights of gun owners, Kelly said, noting that he and Giffords own firearms. Instead, he said, the checks would reduce chances that guns fall into the hands of criminals and people whose mental illness makes them dangerous.
About 40 percent of gun sales or transfers of ownership are made without a background check, according to Kelly.
Gun-control opponents, such as the National Rifle Association, claim that statistic is vastly over-estimated. They also claim expanded checks would not prevent violence by individuals such as Loughner, who had no criminal record and was never legally identified as mentally ill.
Jeff Weinstein, president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, also expressed concern over the use of personal information obtained in expanded checks.
“If a proposed background check process can possibly morph into a de facto permanent gun registration program, then any effort to expand the background check process is doomed to failure, both politically and constitutionally,” Weinstein, a Yarmouth resident, said in a press release distributed Saturday.
Despite public support, expansion of background checks has been hampered by powerful lobbies and lack of a “level playing field,” Kelly said. One of the goals of ARS is to change that, drawing on a membership that numbers 500,000 now and is growing.
“(The goal) is to get Congress to do what the American people want,” he said. “It’s going to be a long, hard haul.”
Saturday’s visit was the next-to-last stop on a seven-day, seven-state tour staged by the ARS to refocus attention on the federal legislation.
In addition to Giffords and Kelly, speakers included Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley, each a parent of a child killed in last year’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.; Portland Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch, and Larry Gilbert, a former three-term mayor of Lewiston who is seeking a return to office.
The speakers were quick to praise both Maine senators for their votes in April, but also urged them to work with other senators to make a potential second vote on the measure successful.
It’s not clear if a second vote would reach the Senate floor – it’s rare for failed legislation to be reintroduced so quickly. But some, such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have predicted the proposal will be reconsidered this fall.
“We were disappointed (by the vote), but we are not defeated,” Barden said Saturday.
Before visiting Portland, the tour stopped in Alaska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Ohio – all home to senators who voted against Manchin-Toomey. On Sunday, Giffords and Kelly were scheduled to visit North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan supported the bill.
Meanwhile, another gun-control group is making a cross-country tour of its own to demonstrate support of the Manchin-Toomey legislation.
The “No More Names” bus tour, organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, is traveling to 25 states in 100 days. The tour, launched last month, stopped in Augusta on June 17.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns is a coalition of 950 mayors, led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and including Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona responds to an enthusiastic crowd Saturday at Portland City Hall, where she and husband Mark Kelly rallied support for expanding federal background checks of gun purchasers.