"In The Moment….By Joe Appel
Forecaster Newspaper (Portland Area) - December 18th, 2003

Gunfight at Sunset

Ethan Strimling's e-mail to me read, "Weapons of Mass Destruction.". It was about the Portland Democratic state senator's attempt to get a bill past the 10-member Legislative Council before the full Legislature reconvenes Jan. 7. Yikes, WOMD. In our very own backyard?

No, but it got my attention: Strimling's bill would ban assault weapons. Oops, I mean "assault weapons." The semi-automatic rifles - which most gun-rights proponents say are no different from other semi-automatics save for cosmetics (hence, the need for quotation marks), are currently outlawed by the federal government. But the prohibition needs to be renewed or else it will "sunset" in September of next year. Many say there's an excellent chance Congress will allow the sunset, and seven states have already put bans in place, just in case. Strimling wants to add Maine to the list.

"If this isn't emergency legislation," he asked me, "what is? We're talking about legal assault weapons for at least nine months." That's the time after September 2004 it would take a subsequent Legislature to put a new law into effect if the 121st's second session ends next year without instituting a ban.

No one gives Strimling a good chance of moving his bill. The Legislative Council is deadlocked in a 5-5 tie (along party lines except for Westbrook Democratic Rep. Bob Duplessie's "no" vote) over whether to pass it. "All we're talking about," Strimling said, "is getting the conversation going." The conversation did get going a few years ago, actually, and suffered a similar fate, though this was in part due to the imminent enactment of the federal ban.

Jeff Weinstein says it's a phony issue because assault weapons are' "functionally identical" to legal rifles not covered by the law. Weinstein's name will be familiar to many Forecaster readers; the Yarmouth resident has been an outspoken proponent of keeping and bearing, and is now president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, Inc.

"The (federal) law as it's written," he told me, "has been totally ineffective. It has not banned, except for foreign imports which it has only slowed, the sale of so-called assault weapons," Weinstein said because assault weapons are "distinguished by appearance, solely, Ethan Strimling shows his ignorance by introducing this bill. The whole thing will be reasoned to death, and we'll show how silly he is."

Legislative Council member Rep. Joe Bruno (R--Raymond) said he voted against Strimling's proposal because it does not meet his standards for being a "true" emergency. "Is it dramatic, is there some fiscal or health crisis at stake?" Bruno asked. He went on to say he doubts the U.S. Congress will allow the federal ban to sunset, and added, "For Senator Strimling's district (Portland's peninsula) this may be a big deal; but for the rest of the state it's not."

That would conform to certain stereotypes about different regions of the state, but it might not be true. An October poll by Strategic Marketing Services asked, "Should the state of Maine prohibit or allow the sale of assault weapons?" 83.5 percent said prohibit. The numbers were above 80 percent throughout the state, and even 77 percent of Republican poll respondents voted to prohibit.

Weinstein called "unconstitutional" any attempt to ban a type of weapon he says is used legitimately all the time by hunters, competitors and collectors. This is part of an overall leftist attempt," he said, "that goes way past gun control. It's about subjugation, and gun control is only one piece of the pie. They want to change the ... values espoused in the Constitution."

"If a ban occurs on something that performs the same as a Ruger .223 but looks like an M-16," he continued, "then it's just a step toward banning the Ruger and ... all other firearms." Seems Strimling's not the only one given to hyperbole.

Anyway, Windham-based firearms manufacturer Bushmaster gave $10,000 to House Republicans last summer. Whether it's coincidence that this abnormally large contribution came at a time when the movement to let the federal ban sunset was gearing up, and when other states had recently instituted their own bans, I don't know, because Bushmaster's public relations representative never returned my phone message. Strimling's right on one thing, at least: We ought to be asking these questions, not shooting, first.