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Maine vote on firearm background checks unsettled late Tuesday

A fiercely fought effort in Maine to expand background checks on gun sales continued late into Tuesday. At 11:15 p.m., opponents of the ballot question held a 51 percent to 49 percent advantage with 42 percent of the votes counted.

Supporters of the bid to extend criminal checks to unlicensed gun sales, which are unregulated and unrecorded in Maine, argued the measure would provide much-needed scrutiny to transactions between private individuals. Currently, only buyers of guns purchased from federally licensed dealers undergo such checks.

The ballot effort has repercussions for Massachusetts, where Maine ranks second in the number of out-of-state guns recovered at crime scenes.


Judi Richardson of South Portland, whose daughter was shot in a 2010 home invasion, said the semiautomatic handgun used in the crime had been sold privately at a Maine gun show and could not be traced. A month after her daughter’s shooting, the gun was used again in a Portland murder.

If background checks had been required, Richardson said, perhaps the gunman would have been arrested. “Background checks are the one tool we know that works,” she said. “We’re trying to save lives.”

Opponents of the measure, in a state where hunting is a cherished pastime, call background checks an inconvenience, a financial burden, and an infringement of the rights of responsible gun owners to purchase and sell arms.

Kevin Webb, president of Uncle Henry’s — a Maine-based listing of classified ads that helps sell more than 2,000 guns a year, many without the need for criminal background checks — said the effort would impose an extra cost on law-abiding gun owners “that is not their responsibility.”

If the measure is approved, state law would force buyers in person-to-person sales to have background checks conducted at the premises of a federally licensed dealer, who would charge a fee.


“At the end of the day,” Webb said, “you are not going to stop guns from getting into the hands of people who really want them.”

Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia require background checks at least for handguns, according to David Farmer, campaign manager for Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, the leading advocate for the initiative. In Massachusetts, local police departments conduct background checks before issuing permits to purchase a firearm.

According to federal data, 94 firearms traced to Maine were seized in Massachusetts in 2015. That figure trailed only the 136 guns tracked to New Hampshire and the 419 firearms purchased in Massachusetts itself.

Unlike sales by a federally licensed dealer, private sales in Maine do not include any check for criminal convictions or other disqualifying criteria such as whether the buyer is a fugitive, an illegal immigrant, or under a restraining order.

Gun sales in Maine are not registered with the state, and licenses to own a gun are not required, as in Massachusetts. Concealed weapons can be carried in Maine without a permit.

Todd Tolhurst, president of Gun Owners of Maine, said the ballot question would require burdensome background checks on “casual loans made between friends and neighbors,” a practice that has long been common in Maine.

The Maine referendum attracted deep-pocketed interest from across the country, which helped raise more than $5 million for the background-checks campaign. A leading contributor was Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. California, Washington state, and Nevada also considered measures to tighten gun regulations.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at