Thursday, February 28, 2013

Angus King United States Senator from Maine Responds

We have some more responses rolling in and will post them as they come in. Our latest response is from Maine's other Senator, Angus King. It is a lengthy read, but one of the more thought out responses received, whether you agree with everything he says or not. 


Thank you for contacting me to share your views on guns and gun violence; I appreciate your taking the time to be in touch. I have received thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from Maine people on this issue and have personally met with gun owners and representatives of Maine's sportsmen's community as well as Maine citizens who have long advocated for stronger gun laws. 

I have listened in order to understand the various points of view in this debate and to search for practical, effective steps that can be taken to lessen the toll that guns take in our society (some 30,000 deaths each year) while respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

I am sending this response to everyone who has written or called so that people on both sides of the debate can better understand my approach to this complicated issue. Though you may not fully agree with my conclusions, I want to you know my thinking and how I am reaching my decisions.

Our experience here in Maine proves that access to guns doesn't necessarily mean an increase in gun violence. Our state has a relatively high rate of gun ownership but a comparatively low level of gun crime. I believe our state's experience speaks to the long-standing heritage and traditions of the hunting community and of our gun-owning citizens which has instilled a standard of responsible firearm ownership that is passed down from generation to generation. 

(For a fascinating and well-balanced discussion of the role that the culture of gun ownership can play in this issue, I suggest an article in the February 15 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Why the Gun Debate is Off Target by Dan Baum).

As you know, there are many ideas currently under discussion that seek to address the problem of gun violence in various ways. In thinking about these proposals--and Maine's experience--I start with the premise that the most important single thing we can do is to keep guns out of the hands of people who are demonstrably not responsible and pose a danger to themselves or others. 

Along these lines, there are several proposals which strike me as simple common sense, including: 

Denying firearms and access to explosives to individuals known or suspected to be involved in acts of terrorism;
Strengthening laws against falsifying information when buying a firearm;
Specifically making gun trafficking illegal under federal law;
Universal background checks, with common sense exemptions such as transfers within families. Currently, 40% of gun sales fall outside the instant check system, which makes little sense and actually disadvantages licensed gun dealers in Maine and elsewhere. I am still reviewing ways that we can make these checks more effective, but I believe there is a clear need to close the current loopholes in order to keep guns out of the hands of those proven to be dangerously mentally ill or criminally violent. Taking further steps to prevent these individuals from getting firearms can be accomplished without creating a national gun registry or limiting the rights of law-abiding citizens.
I am also considering the possibility of limiting the size of ammunition magazines. In the recent gun massacres, a jammed magazine or the time necessary to reload has often provided the opportunity to stop the shooting.

After a great deal of thought, however, I still have serious concerns about the proposed ban on so-called assault weapons--principally because I just don't think it will work. I believe that such a bill places too much emphasis on the cosmetic appearance of particular firearms rather than their actual functionality.

Banning guns because they look a certain way will not, in my opinion, have a significant impact upon gun violence. In addition, manufacturers made minor adaptations which rendered the previous ban largely ineffective, and I expect the same thing would happen this time around. 

It is important to emphasize that these weapons have exactly the same firing mechanism as the common semi-automatic hunting rifles owned by thousands of Maine residents. Although their looks may be more menacing, these weapons do not shoot any faster, farther, or with more power than conventional hunting rifles. In addition, the vast majority of gun crimes--over 90%--involve handguns, not rifles, assault or otherwise.

The answer to gun violence does not lie solely in tougher gun laws, however. Equally important are the questions that recent incidents raise about the breakdown of community and the adequacy of our mental health system to identify and treat potentially violent individuals. We clearly need to do a better job understanding and reporting mental illness so that we can enforce existing laws. 

Thanks again for your message. I know how strongly people feel about these questions--on both sides--and am working hard to find positive steps that will diminish the terrible toll of gun violence while also respecting the Second Amendment and the rights of law-abiding gun owners in Maine and across the country. Not an easy task, but one I'm convinced we can accomplish. 

Best Regards,

United States Senator

P.S., Many of you have written expressing the view that the Second Amendment is absolute and prevents the passage of any kind of gun laws whatsoever. Without getting into a long discussion about Constitutional interpretation, this view is not supported by Supreme Court opinion or the general history of our Constitutional law.

Probably the best example of this history is the apparently absolute prohibition on infringements on freedom of speech contained in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”) which has long been interpreted to have limits--that free speech does not include the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, for example.

Likewise, the Supreme Court has consistently interpreted the Second Amendment to allow the regulation of certain kinds of guns and gun commerce. Fully automatic (Tommy) guns and sawed-off shotguns have been heavily regulated for 80 years, for example. This governmental power was reconfirmed as recently as 2008 in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller which declared the District’s heavy restrictions on handguns unconstitutional. Following the heart of the opinion which struck down the District’s law, Justice Antonin Scalia went on to make this point very clearly,

“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

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