The Universal Notebook: Questions about Question 3

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Last week I was waiting at the deli counter for some sliced cheese when a woman approached me and, with a look of horror in her eyes, whispered, “That man over there has a gun.”

Yes, I explained to her, in Maine it is perfectly legal to carry a firearm openly and you don’t even need a license or permit to carry a concealed weapon.

“That freaks me out,” the woman said.

People carrying guns make a lot of people nervous. After I got my order I went looking for the man with the gun to ask him to help us understand why he was carrying a gun in a grocery store, but he had left.

As the Nov. 8 referendum on universal background checks on gun sales approaches I have been asking a lot of questions about gun laws lately in an effort to better understand what is at issue.

The wording of Question 3 is pretty straightforward: “Do you want to require background checks prior to the sale or transfer of firearms between individuals not licensed as firearms dealers, with failure to do so punishable by law, and with some exceptions for family members, hunting, self-defense, lawful competitions, and shooting range activity?”

Polls indicate that between 60 percent and 70 percent of Maine citizens support universal background checks. It just seems like common sense. If we are going to require background checks for gun sales by licensed forearms dealers, why wouldn’t we require background checks for all gun sales?

These questions were discussed last week at the Choose Civility Election Series at Portland Public Library, where about 75-80 people packed the library’s auditorium to hear a point-counterpoint discussion that pitted two Maine men, both gun owners and both Republicans, against one another.

Bobby Reynolds, a retired Portland firefighter, former member of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ staff and now deputy director of Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, spoke in favor of Question 3.

“I don’t find it to be an inconvenience to make sure that I’m participating in a system that ensures that bad people can’t get their hands on guns,” Reynolds said. “As a responsible gun owner, you should embrace a system that bad people won’t get their hands on guns.”

David Trahan, director of the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine, spoke in opposition, voicing some of the concerns that opponents of universal background checks have that the wording of the law expands the definition of “transfer,” such that anyone loaning a gun to a friend would be subject to the hassle and expense of background checks both to loan a gun and to get it back.

“This law,” Trahan said, “creates thousands of ways in which people can be charged with crimes without ever doing anything wrong.”

Reynolds spoke for the 66,000 Mainers who signed the petition to get Question 3 on the ballot. Trahan spoke for the 10,000 SAM members, as well as members of several other hunting and trapping organizations, 40,000-50,000 in total. The pro and con breakdown of the library audience struck me as pretty even. So we’ll call the forum a draw.

Personally, I hope Question 3 passes, but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t. Donald Trump is likely to get at least as many gun control opponents to the polls as the 2014 bear baiting referendum did. And there are legitimate questions about whether Question 3 will have unintended consequences.

For example, because federal law prohibits licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to people under 21, requiring that licensed firearms dealers perform background checks for all private sales could mean that people 18-20 years old could no longer legally purchase a handgun in Maine. Or it could just be that licensed dealers would perform the background check without being considered the seller.

“This law could have been drafted very narrowly,” Trahan complained.

Under the proposed law, for example, “transfer” means “to sell, furnish, give, lend, deliver or otherwise provide, with or without consideration.” I asked Trahan, who supports existing background check requirements, whether his organization would support universal background checks if they applied only to gun sales and permanent transfers of ownership. If so, I told him, I might be persuaded to vote no on Question 3, in favor of a more narrowly-written law that simply did what most supporters believe it will do.

He couldn’t answer. He said he’d have to check with his board of directors.

Universal background checks are a good idea. The law proposed by Question 3 may not be the best way to achieve this, but it’s a start. And I’m sure whichever way the vote goes, we haven’t heard the last of universal background checks.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.