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Portland mayor, police chief urge tighter gun-control laws

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Portland mayor, police chief urge tighter gun-control laws

PORTLAND — Exactly a month after 20 children and six adults were killed in a mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Mayor Michael Brennan and city leaders called on the state Legislature and Congress to enact "common sense" gun-control measures.

"I am calling on Congress to stand up for the survivors, for the family members of victims, and for the millions of Americans who all deserve protection from illegal guns and military-style assault weapons," Brennan said at a City Hall press conference Monday.

Brennan is one of three mayors in Maine – and more than 800 across the country – who make up the gun control coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The coalition held similar events around the country and is releasing a TV ad in Portland and elsewhere urging viewers to "demand a plan to end gun violence."

Every day, 33 Americans are murdered with guns, according to the coalition.

The plan advocated by Brennan and the rest of the coalition includes requiring every gun purchaser to pass a criminal background check, outlawing high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines, and stiffening federal laws against gun trafficking.

"These three proposals have been vetted in public before, and strike at the heart of the problem," Brennan said.

He admitted that the measures must balance the public's right to access guns with the community's right to protect its children and citizens.

"We want to make sure we enact common-sense proposals that balance these two rights," he said. "No one's up here tipping the scale."

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said there is a "universal need" for background checks, especially to identify mentally ill individuals who may be prone to violence. He said Portland police responded to 4,000 calls last year involving cases of mental illness.

Maine is one of only 13 states that does not provide the names of people involuntarily committed to hospitals for suicidal or homicidal behavior to a national background system.

Sauschuck also said that the "average citizen" could understand the difference between the high-capacity assault weapons the mayors want to outlaw and semi-automatic guns used legally by Mainers for hunting and sport.

Jeff Weinstein, president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, told Sauschuck from the audience that there is little difference.

"The only difference is a cosmetic one, a matter of shape and form," the Yarmouth resident said.

Earlier Monday, U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, seemed to share Weinstein's concern on national television.

“The assault weapon ban is a tough one because it’s hard to define what an assault weapon is,” King said during an interview on “CBS This Morning.” “And if we’re just defining it by what it looks like, that doesn’t do much for me. I’m much more interested in the functionality and whether that’s really a different weapon than my buddies’ semi-automatic hunting rifles.”

Sauschuck said there would have to be dialogue about the definition of any banned weapons.

Also at the press conference, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk discussed the suggestion of arming teachers or school volunteers as a way of stopping Newtown-type massacres, a proposal put forth by the National Rifle Association.

"I believe this is absolutely the wrong approach," Caulk said. "Filling schools with weapons makes them more likely to be used inappropriately."

A teacher, he said, "shouldn't be judge, jury and executioner."

Monday's press conference came one day before Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to announce a package of recommendations aimed at reducing gun violence.

Joining the city officials were two founding members of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, Portland lawyer William Harwood and Robert McAfee, a surgeon and former president of the American Medical Association.

"We will not rest until this discussion leads to meaningful action," Harwood said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.