Commentary: Family, guns and fear

By Peter Sly

We want to keep our families safe. That is a core value for all of us. We sharply differ about the effects of widespread gun ownership on family and community safety. Some fear that Maine families will be at risk unless they can protect themselves with guns if need be. Others fear that the omnipresence of guns is itself causing the epidemic of massacres and suicides.

Public servants are essential to ensuring domestic tranquility. The state and local police, county sheriffs and federal officers are trained to be good guys with guns. How can we best empower them to do their hard jobs? The simplest and most objective system of regulation is the best. A universal gun registry and clear licensing requirements will help ensure that guns are well regulated. A model for this is motor vehicle registration and licensing.

On June 23, the Supreme Court issued a major decision in NY Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (“Bruen”). The opinions in that case have stirred fears that our families will be at risk from reckless, self-appointed “good guys” brandishing guns at Fourth of July parades, schools, shopping malls and houses of worship. The wandering Bruen opinions use thousands of unnecessary words to recite some loose history. They obfuscate the Court’s simple thrust: Gun regulation cannot be arbitrary and burdensome. Rather, objective and clear regulatory criteria are necessary. The Second Amendment is neither a regulatory straitjacket nor a regulatory blank check. A universal gun registry and licensing system should easily pass muster under Bruen if it uses objective and clear criteria.

Law enforcement at all levels needs rapid, easy access to cross-referenced universal gun registries and licensing lists. For each type of vehicular license, the legislature provides objective criteria, for example age, eyesight, drug abuse, criminal record, along with training in proficiency and safety. Gun licensing can be very similar.

All vehicles that drive on public roads must be registered, and there are specific requirements for certain vehicles based on the vehicle’s power and its purpose. On the other hand, not all guns are yet required to be registered. Weapons of war have always been prohibited, including cannons, hand grenades, cluster bombs, tanks and most machine guns. Evolving war technologies will require periodic additions to this list of dangerous and unusual weapons.

Some elements of a gun registry and licensing system already exist. They are not comprehensive or easily cross-referenced. The registration and licensing systems are hamstrung by scarce funds and limits on access to data that government already has.

On the state level, it is likely that gun ownership and use regulations in the wilder parts of Maine could be well regulated through simplified registration and licensing as part of a universally applicable system, other than ensuring comprehensiveness. Hunters play an important role in sparsely populated areas by harvesting nuisance wildlife (deer, turkeys) and should face few limitations beyond responsible safe hunting.

Maine does not yet have a comprehensive background check system. Our 2016 Background Check initiative failed to recognize legitimate concerns of the hunting community, which led to its defeat. On the federal level, Congress narrowly rejected a 2013 background check bill in part because it was not linked to a national gun registry. Susan Collins was frustrated by its defeat. She sits on a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee with authority over federal gun agency funding and data constraints. This year, she voted for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which is helpful, if insufficient. It doesn’t include comprehensive background checks, safe storage requirements, full accountability for the gun industry or updated prohibitions on weapons of war. Maine’s families will still need her help in tightening, expanding and coordinating gun registration and licensing systems.

Over the next four months, our public spaces will be inundated by electioneering on highways, in the virtual universe and through breathless news reports. Guns and gun violence will be featured. Both sides of the national divide view elections in northern Maine and Hancock County as crucial. Any effort to control the state or federal government will need support from our many unenrolled voters.

We can expect a torrent of campaign expenditures in races for Congress (Bond v. Golden v. Poliquin), the State Senate (Langley v. Grohoski) and Maine House of Representatives (Joyce v. Eaton). Advertisements from national gun and gun-control interests will encourage fear. These polarizing forces will foster anxiety that Maine families, like others in the U.S., will suffer massacres, bad guys on the loose, vigilantes and an out-of-control government. In truth, when it comes to good government today, the most important thing we must fear is fear itself.

Fortunately our small communities have plenty of election ticket splitters who make up their own minds about candidates and issues. We can talk in person with friendly neighbors about difficult issues like guns. We may differ on solutions, but we all want our families to be safe. Let’s be sure common sense about gun regulation is part of those conversations.


Brooklin attorney Peter Sly has seen the effects of gun violence in his family.

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