Speaking of Guns

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There's been a lot of talk about my recent speech to the annual banquet of the Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence. A Maine Sunday Telegram column by Bill Nemitz, accessed in the "In The News" section of this website, spread the speech far and wide, and generated comments both positive and negative.

Here is the entire speech, so you can make your own judgements.

Good evening. PAUSE. I bet you are wondering what I’m going to say. I wondered that too, when Dr. McAphee called to invite me to speak at your annual banquet and fundraiser.

Getting him to issue the invitation was clever, because I could not say to no to Dr. McAphee. I have tremendous respect and admiration for him. I did hesitate, but after quite a bit of discussion, agreed to speak.

I think there were some misgivings on both sides. In fact, I think Tom Franklin is still a bit nervous! Bob and Tom and Bill Harwood sealed the deal when they traveled to Hallowell to have lunch with me. After an interesting and spirited discussion, we all were more comfortable with this opportunity.

And believe me, I know this is a very special opportunity for me. Not so much for you probably! But I am very grateful to you for your attendance here tonight, even after you learned that I was your speaker. They did tell you that, didn’t they?

I fear that many of you know me – or think you know me – so it’s too late to make a good impression!

Let me begin by talking about my friend Bill Harwood. Often on opposing sides on firearms issues at the legislature, you might think Bill and I are not friends. But we are friends. I greatly respect his opinions and his advocacy on your behalf. I value his honesty and trust him when we must speak (and strategize) confidentially.

I am not going to toss out the standard rhetoric about firearms tonight, because you have heard all of that many times. I was going to bring a handgun tonight to use as a prop. Bob talked me out of that. I realized, with his help, that this would be disrespectful. And I do respect each and every one of you, and your concerns about firearms violence. I share those concerns.

But I ask you to imagine for a moment that I am holding a handgun. How many of you have ever fired a handgun?

Sportsmen take guns – and gun safety – very very seriously. Education is critically important. We should be working together on this. The fear of firearms is often driven by unfamiliarity with them. Sportsmen strongly advocate for firearms education. I was entirely unsuccessful in getting this into the core curriculum or any other curriculum in our public schools.

But in Maine, where you are very likely to encounter firearms, it’s best if you know all about guns. Indeed, that you’ve fired them, gotten familiar with their safety features.

It did take gun owners some time to realize the importance of safe storage of their firearms. When my kids were growing up, my guns were on an open shelf in the living room, ammunition in a drawer below. I never gave it a thought. And today, I am very grateful that this never resulted in a tragedy.

Here is a place where we agree and have worked together. I got some trigger locks when you distributed them. That was a great initiative on your part.

About ten years ago, after waking up to the issue, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Maine Chiefs of Police Association partnered on gun safety posters that we placed in gun shops and fish and game clubs, urging the safe storage of firearms. That partnership went on for years, until we ran out of posters.

Five years ago I helped create a safe storage TV ad that was aired many times on Wildlife, the TV talk show I co-host with my friend Harry Vanderweide.

And perhaps most exciting – three weeks ago I taped a TV ad, at the request of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, about the importance of performing background checks on firearms’ buyers. It’s time to stop fighting about the so-called “gun show loophole” and focus on what is needed to make sure every firearms buyer is entitled to purchase a gun.

We’re hoping the ad will run as a public service announcement on commercial television stations. We’ll also get it up on You Tube, and I expect to run it on Wildfire too. Here’s what I said in the ad:

Hi. I’m George Smith. I strongly support the right to buy and sell firearms. But if I’m selling a gun to someone I don’t know, I’ll take that buyer to my closest gun shop to have a background check performed. Gun dealers throughout Maine are happy to do this for you.

Owning and selling gun is a right, but it’s also a responsibility – so do the right thing and get a background check – – to protect yourself and prevent your gun from being used in a crime. Be safe – and never sorry.

That’s the ad. This is what we can do, when we respect each other, talk to each other, and put aside the rhetoric to focus on the important things. We cannot be afraid of or opposed to working together. We must respect you. And you must respect us.

You may be surprised to learn that gun dealers do perform background checks for private sellers. I didn’t know that, until Kim Adams of Kittery Trading Post testified at the legislature that his business has performed thousands of such background checks. Hopefully, we’ll be able to nudge more private gun sellers in that direction with this TV ad.

But let me be clear on this issue. We still have differences of opinion. If the gun seller knows the gun buyer, I see no reason to do a background check. It may even be a family member, a friend, a hunting buddy. I strongly oppose mandatory background checks for private sales, no matter where those sales are conducted.

We should stop fighting about the so-called gun show loophole, and simply make sure there is a licensed gun dealer at every show who is willing to perform background checks for private sellers at the show, to encourage and make it easy for those private sellers to have background checks performed if they do not know the gun buyers.

You see, rather than establishing goals way out here (hands extended all the way out), you should focus on what can be accomplished here (hands extended only slightly out), where we will meet you willingly and gladly.

I know that some of our differences on guns are cultural. I was born a Maine sportsman, raised a Maine sportsman, and I will die a Maine sportsman. I learned gun safety very early in my life, and was hunting by the age of 12.

On my office wall is a wonderful photo of my brother Gordon, my Dad Ezra Smith, and me, with a brace of pheasants and our English setter.  To this day, I remember every detail of the first pheasant I ever shot. The setter pointed the bird in a corn field at the end of Maranacook Lake, I walked up to the dog, flushed the bird, and shot it.

Today, there’s a house in that exact spot. And that’s another speech.

One of my proudest moments in my 18 years of work at the legislature came on a gun bill – a gun bill you liked. Attorney General Steve Rowe invited me to his office to talk about an idea he had to address the terrible problem of domestic violence – a cause I have worked on for many many years, ever since a very good friend of mine, who sings in the church choir with me, spoke courageously one Sunday about a time when her then-husband stuck a gun in her face and threatened to shoot her.

That testimony had a very great impact on me. So when Steve called me in to discuss his idea, I was attentive. But his idea was very controversial. He wanted the courts and police to be able to take guns away from those who are served a temporary protection order. At that time this could be done for permanent orders – because the person being served has a right to appear and defend himself and his guns in that situation – but not for temporary orders which are issued routinely.

After a lot of discussion and thought, I agreed to support Steve’s bill and was very proud of SAM’s Board of Directors for standing up on this. Another major gun group, which I shall not name, participated in the discussion and initially agreed to support the bill, but later opposed it when it went to the legislature.

SAM continued to actively support the bill and it was enacted into law. Even so, I do not personally think that piece of paper – the protective order – really protects a woman who is threatened, so it’s very important to take all other possible steps to protect that woman. We have not yet done that.

But here’s something I bet you don’t know about this issue. Bill Harwood, after participating in our discussions and talking with me about Steve Rowe’s temporary order initiative, agreed to step out of the picture, and let the Attorney General and SAM carry the issue through the legislative process. We knew we’d have an easier time if gun advocates led that effort. And we were right. Bill certainly helped, but in a quiet behind-the-scenes way – and that made a big difference. And it added to my respect for him and your organization.

So, here I am, getting near to the end of my speech, and still wondering what I want to say to  you tonight. The things I’ve mentioned are important and interesting, but they are not the heart of this matter, are they?

Perhaps I should give you some advice. You know you have lost political ground. Even liberal Democrats have abandoned your cause – ever since Bill Clinton discovered gun control doesn’t win any votes. You must be frustrated. I would be if I were you.

And in Maine, you are seriously outgunned. So, what to do about that?

Well, if I were you, I’d pick up these two books: The Gun Book for Boys and The Gun Book for Parents, published by Shooting Sportsman Books – a subsidiary of Down East Magazine. And yes, a Gun Book for Girls is coming soon. These books are very good, non-threatening, comprehensive, well-written plain-language explanations of everything you should know about guns. I think it’s especially important for you to understand our language, if you are going to talk guns with us.

I personally believe there is a lot of common ground to plow, if we can set aside our rhetoric and focus on keeping Maine citizens safe and free. It’s most important to respect each other, our views, our hopes and our fears, our life experiences. After almost 50 years of involvement in Maine politics, I am no longer interested in wasting time on foolish and frivolous arguments and political theater.

Perhaps we can accept our differences of opinion, and find issues and projects on which we can cooperate and collaborate. That’s what I’m doing, with your organization and others. That’s why I am here tonight. That’s why I just did that TV ad for you. Will you join me in this?

Don’t all respond at once! Now I am pausing because I’m wondering what you are thinking. How about telling me now? And asking the questions that must be on your mind.

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