Question 3, the universal background check referendum, failed on Nov. 8 despite the fact that most Mainers and most Americans favor background checks.
Why? Because the proposed universal background check regulations were poorly written.
Why? Because they were not written by Maine people and they were not written by gun owners.
What killed this latest chance for meaningful background checks was the overreach of the regulations promulgated by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety organization.
By including “transfers” as well as “sales” in the background check requirements the law would have made it difficult to loan firearms among friends, something that commonly happens among hunters in Maine.
Law enforcement in the state was split between urban police chiefs who favored universal background checks and rural sheriffs who opposed them, both I assume because sheriffs are popularly elected and because they understood that the law would have been unenforceable.
Without a firearms registry, there is no way to prove who owns a gun or to prove who sold or transferred a gun to another person. And the fear of registration was the largely unspoken reason many gun owners were opposed to Question 3.
To many of us, it may just seem like common sense to treat firearms like automobiles – get instruction, pass a test, get a license, register your guns. But many gun owners fear registration of firearms because they don’t want the government to know what they own and because they fear registration will lead to confiscation. Gun dealers must maintain gun sale records indefinitely, but federal law prohibits the government from maintaining a central gun registry.
Personally, I do not understand this fear of registration and confiscation, but I do understand that some gun owners believe the government wants to disarm them. With 300 million guns already in circulation, I can’t imagine how Americans could ever be disarmed, but I can imagine the bloodshed that would take place if anyone ever tried.
If we are ever to have truly meaningful gun control, it will require the collaboration of gun owners, both because they know what would work and because they have to be on board to get controls passed. I have come to believe that many social problems such as gun violence resist solutions because the nation is so polarized that people with opposing views are unable to cooperate, collaborate and compromise.
But there may be ways to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people that gun owners could support.
One of those methods might be what has been called unilateral background checks, or the blind identification system. The existing background check system, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, operates by having licensed gun dealers call to check all potential firearms purchasers against an FBI data base. The BIDS method would have the FBI provide gun dealers with direct access to the list of prohibited persons so they could check themselves if a potential purchaser was on it, rather than go through the government.
My buddy John, a firearms instructor and something of an authority on gun laws, showed me an even simpler way for private citizens to perform background checks. He suggests just taking a picture on a smartphone of a potential buyer holding up his or her Maine driver’s license (since Maine people can only legally sell guns to Maine residents) and sending the picture to local police. If the police can’t run the check and respond in a timely fashion, the sale can go forward, and if it turns out the purchaser fails the background check the police would know who to contact.
John also proposed that gun owners who pass a rigorous background check be indemnified against prosecution if a gun they sell or transfer ends up in the wrong hands. In return for immunity from prosecution, responsible gun owners would have to identify the purchaser of a gun. Of course, I’m not sure how this would work without the central gun registry that is anathema to Second Amendment advocates.
My point again, however, is that gun owners need to help craft gun control measures that are effective, enforceable and constitutional. Just opposing everything proposed is simply not responsible gun ownership.
If the 25 percent of Americans who own guns don’t want the 75 percent of Americans who don’t making the rules for them, they need to propose some rules themselves.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.