The Universal Notebook: Sick of guns, sick of intimidation

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On Election Day, I signed the Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense petition to once again try to close the gun-show loophole that allows anyone with a fistful of dollars to purchase a gun without a background check. Many of the other people coming out of the polling place signed, too, but I despair of such a reasonable measure ever passing.

Why? Because we live in a gun-sick society.

Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans favor universal background checks. Whether such checks would reduce gun violence in this country is debatable, but there’s no reason for anyone to be opposed to background checks unless they believe they couldn’t pass one. Background checks are already required for all guns sales by licensed dealers. It’s not like closing the gun-show loophole amounts to gun registration. So what was a group calling itself Project Dirigo doing videotaping petitioners and signers at some polling places?

Shane Belanger, founder of the Maine Open Carry Association, was one of those videotaping the petition gathering. Belanger made his first appearance on the public stage in 2010 when he organized an open carry picnic on Back Cove in Portland just to demonstrate that it is legal to carry a gun in public.

In July of this year, Belanger was in the news again, this time at the Statehouse as pistol-packing Gov.. Paul LePage cheerfully signed the law into effect allowing anyone to carry a concealed firearm without a permit. Then last week, Belanger was at the polls at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, videotaping petition signers.

“This is all about making sure the petition process is fair and transparent,” Belanger told a reporter.

The ostensible motive for the videotaping was to prevent out-of-state petition circulators from gathering signatures, a hangover from the bear-baiting referendum, when blood sport enthusiasts charged that out-of-state animal rights activists gathered signatures illegally.

The more obvious motive was intimidation.

It should be perfectly clear by now that if we could not get our elected representatives to enact meaningful controls on guns after 20 little children and six adults were slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut, we are never going to get them to do so. The gun lobby has won. But if they persist in stunts like trying to intimidate voters, their dirty tricks may backfire. These video vigilantes may learn the hard way that if you abuse a freedom you can lose it.

Belanger obviously cares a great deal about the right to bear arms. I don’t. But then I don’t believe we are going to have to fight ISIS house to house in Portland, nor do I view our government as the enemy. I am much more worried about the threat to democracy from groups like Project Dirigo.

What I do care about is that in a day and age when we should be imposing reasonable restrictions on the acquisition and use of firearms, we seem determined to do just the opposite. First we decided to let any yahoo carry a concealed weapon. Then we decided it was OK to use silencers on hunting rifles. What next? Do away with background checks altogether?

In an ideal world here’s what we’d do about guns. First, we’d replace the Second Amendment with a law stating that gun ownership is a privilege, not a right. Only people over 21 who have passed an extensive background check and a gun safety course would be allowed to own firearms, subject to certain limitations.

No automatic or semiautomatic weapons. No assault weapons. No high-capacity magazines. No silencers. Concealed-weapon permits issued by police only upon demonstrated need. All gun owners to drill once every two years with local law enforcement because, after all, the right to bear arms is not about hunting, it’s about maintaining a well-regulated militia.

None of this is likely to occur of course, but, at the very least, we should make every effort to pass a universal background-check law. At this point I could care less whether background checks would have any effect on gun violence or not. Maine has a lot of guns and relatively little gun violence. That’s not the point. It’s simply time for the good people of Maine to take a stand, to take back some of their rights from those who have adopted the politics of threat and intimidation that Paul LePage has inflicted on the state.

We, the people, have the right to demand that anyone buying a gun pass a background check and we should do so. And we, the people, have the right to be free from intimidation. If we need a law to prohibit videotaping at the polls, let’s do it.

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

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