Amid a national debate over gun violence, Maine lawmakers are being asked to grapple with a difficult question: If someone is deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves and to others, should police be able to temporarily confiscate their guns?
State Sen. Mark Dion is sponsoring a proposal often called a red flag bill, but more formally known as extreme risk protection orders. Six other states have enacted such laws, and at least 20 other states, including Maine, are considering them in the wake of mass shootings that involved perpetrators who were known to police, peers and others.
Dion said his bill attempts to balance 2nd Amendment rights with a tool that would take guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
"On this issue, there can be extremists on both sides,” he said. “And I'm trying to drive down the middle lane. I think it's in the public's best interest.”
But the gun rights activists who crammed into three committee rooms for Tuesday's public hearing don't see it that way. They see a two-pronged attack, one on the right to bear arms, the other on due process.
"It's really the only bill of this sort I've seen that tries, convicts and sentences an individual,” said Todd Tolhurst, president of Gun Owners of Maine, a gun rights group that mobilized dozens of its members to testify against Dion's bill. “And the very first thing they're going to know about it is when knock comes at their door and there's a police officer demanding that they turnover their firearms right now.”
The bill would allow police or concerned family members to petition the courts and argue that an individual is a danger to themselves or others.
But Tolhurst said the range of people who could petition the courts is too broadly defined. It's not just family members, but ex-spouses or former romantic partners.
"So basically anyone can attack your gun rights,” Tolhurst said. “All they have to do is tell a little lie that cannot be discovered.”
The bill would require petitioners to make sworn statements to support their case. But Tolhurst said people often lie in sworn affidavits, and that if this bill becomes law, a person could have a gun taken away before getting the chance to respond to accusations made against them.
But Dion said there a number of provisions in the bill that would prevent unwarranted confiscations. And he said that if guns are taken, the owner can petition the court after 21 days to get them back.
"The legend that's being propagated is the idea that the police will be manipulated by ex-spouses, ex-relationships, prompting them to just show up at your doorstep and seize firearms. That's not the case," Dion said.
Dion's bill drew support from gun control advocates and Attorney General Janet Mills, a DemocratIc candidate for governor, who said it would be very difficult to confiscate guns under the proposal. She and others argued that it would prevent people from harming others and themselves.
Like all gun bills in the Legislature, Dion's measure faces long odds, and in this case, strong opposition from the National Rifle Association.
NRA spokesperson lars daleside said Dion's red flag bill is deeply flawed because it assumes that people who aren't dangerous enough to arrest, incarcerate or institutionalize are somehow deemed too dangerous to keep a gun, and it assumes such without due process.
"With the bills that we see out there today, most of those that you're going to see us fighting against are those that don't allow for due process to take place. And that's where our issue is," he said.
The NRA's opposition is an ominous sign for Dion's bill. The group is highly influential among gun owners and has played a significant role in beating back gun control proposals in Maine and other states.
Nonetheless, Dion said he hopeful that lawmakers can craft a compromise.