May 21, 2019

Legislature OKs domestic violence bill

AUGUSTA – Earlier this month members of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence were upset and angry with the apparent demise in the Legislature of a bill aimed at warning Mainers shielded by a protection from abuse order should the abuser try to buy a gun.

But Wednesday they were cheering when lawmakers revived and passed the so-called domestic violence bill, which Gov. John Baldacci has endorsed and is expected to sign into law.

“It’s amazing,” said Gretchen Ziemer of the Bangor-based coalition. “We thought the bill was dead, and now it has passed. I am so very relieved that our bill, the original language, has been passed.”

She said there is no doubt the measure is needed, pointing out FBI statistics from 2004 that indicate 47 gun purchases were denied in Maine because the person was under an abuse order. Those statistics were up from 23 the previous year.

Federal law prohibits a person subject to a protection from abuse order from possessing or purchasing firearms. Currently, if a person subject to such an order tried to buy a gun, he would be denied after a background check, and the FBI and the Maine Department of Public Safety would be notified of the denial.

As originally proposed, LD 1938 would require the police to alert the victim that the abuser tried to buy a gun and was denied.

The legislation had been unanimously endorsed by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and had been on the fast track to passage when it hit a roadblock earlier this month. The National Rifle Association urged an amendment that would have required any guns seized by police to be properly cared for and that would have made police responsible for any damage done to a confiscated gun.

While supporters of the original bill complained that the amendment had nothing to do with their proposal, the House passed the amended bill. When the Senate rejected it, a different amendment was offered by Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, that would have required the Criminal Justice Academy to include in its training of police how to properly store privately owned guns that might come into police possession.

But in all of the parliamentary maneuvering that occurred, the measure ended up effectively dead – stuck in limbo between the House and Senate, with the two chambers unable to agree on the same version of the bill.

Ziemer and other anti-domestic violence advocates publicly blasted lawmakers for allowing the bill, which they argued could save lives, to be defeated that way.

Enter cooler heads. House Democratic leader Glenn Cummings of Portland worked with all parties to craft a deal that resulted in two separate bills being allowed for consideration by the Legislature.

One was basically the original bill dealing with notification, and the second was very similar to the Mills amendment.

“There was an understanding on both sides that there were two issues here that needed to be looked at,” said Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, who sponsored the original bill. “I am very pleased that the other side was willing to come up and say, ‘Look, we understand that the domestic violence bill needs to pass and this is how we can make it happen.'”

Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport, the assistant GOP floor leader, who sponsored the NRA-endorsed amendment, agreed that the two resulting bills were a “good compromise” that addressed two separate issues needing consideration.

“The Mills bill is better than the amendment I proposed,” he said. “This is a fair compromise that addresses both issues that needed to be addressed.”

The notification bill was approved unanimously in both the House and Senate, but the gun training bill faced some opposition in the House, though it, too, eventually passed, 105-30.

“This is not needed,” argued Rep. Pat Blanchette, D-Bangor, during the House debate on the gun training bill. “We already, at the police academy over here in Vassalboro, offer 16 hours of extensive classroom and hands-on training.”

Mills countered that not enough training was currently provided and that the measure called for that additional training.

“I think this bill is necessary and important,” she said.

After the House action, the Senate passed the bill without debate or a recorded vote.

Ziemer said when the law takes effect 90 days after the Legislature ends this session, she is confident the notification law will help protect victims of domestic violence from further violence.

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