Westbrook students seeking sensible gun reform meet legislators

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WESTBROOK- Students at Westbrook High School know that if they want to see substantial gun reform, it is going to take a lot of effort to get their voices heard beyond the National Walkout event earlier this month or the March for our Lives event last week.

On May 15, hours after participating in the walkout to raise awareness about gun violence, urge Congress to take action and honor victims of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, 10 high school students met with District 34 State Representative Drew Gattine and District 25 State Senator Cathy Breen.

Westbrook High School senior Kelly Maguire, one of the event participants, said students and legislators talked about how students can get involved in government, what staff officials are doing about making schools a safer place and how gun laws in Maine compare to other areas of the United States.

Gattine said much of the session centered on how students can more effectively advocate beyond the walkout and be heard both in Augusta and Washington. Breen said students were also curious about Maine’s concealed carry law, which passed in 2015 and a proposed bill that would allow individuals to bring a gun onto school campus when they pick up their children as long as the gun was unloaded, locked away and the individual stays in the vehicle. Breen has testified against it.

The proposal will not gain any more momentum because Democrat State Representative John Martin, of Eagle Lake, has asked the legislative council to kill the bill, which the body did last week.

The chances of substantial gun reform are slim at this point in the legislative session, Breen said. Bills proposed in the second session must get approval from the majority of a 10-member legislative council before they can move forward.

Breen said there are two pieces of proposed legislation that deal with school safety that are more likely to be put into action. District 28 State Senator Mark Dion, who represents part of Westbrook, has proposed LR 2943, “An Act To Create a Community Protection Order,” which would allow people to get a judge’s injunction to temporarily remove guns (for up to 21 days) from family members. 

“After the Parkland high school shooting, we’re all searching for a way forward that protects our children while respecting responsible firearm ownership. Today, I am introducing legislation to create Community Protection Orders that will authorize a court to order the surrender of firearms linked to a person, identified as a high-risk individual, who presents a substantial danger to the personal safety of innocent third parties,” Dion, a Democrat, said in a release about the bill. “With the passage of this bill, Maine will add its voice to a growing national consensus that rapid legal intervention, provided by “red flag” statutes, will provide families and public safety officials with a key intervention that will help prevent needless deaths in schools, and in all other public spaces.”

Republican Patrick Corey, a state senator who represents part of Windham in the state senate, has worked with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to propose a bill that would make $20 million in revolving funds available to school districts for security enhancements, facility improvements and collaborative efforts with local law enforcement.

The Department of Public Safety and Department of Education would determine how to fund projects and which ones qualify.

“Funding is really the biggest obstacle to security enhancements at Maine’s K-12 public schools. I strongly believe the Department of Education and the Department of Public Safety are in the best positions to determine these needs,”  Corey said. “I feel a real sense of immediacy as I know many Mainers do but without the funding in place, very little can happen.”

“Those are probably the two (pieces of legislation) that stand the best chances. An outright ban or a change in the age limit is not likely to get passed in the legislative screening process,” Breen said.

“These are both important for us to consider, but I don’t think they go far enough. In my six years (in the Legislature) it’s been difficult to get support for reasonable gun control because of politics,” Gattine said. “Parkland and school shootings, in general, have been changing that conversation and the voices of students are really adding to that conversation.”

Maguire said while it may be too late this legislative session, she is hopeful gun reform for the state is coming. She said legislators told her “if this movement continues to be advocated for, there could potentially be better gun laws” passed in the students’ lifetimes.

Westbrook High School junior Zoe Popovic, who also participated in the discussion, is optimistic this new wave of youth activism will result in change.

“After seeing so many people across the nation walkout and demand stricter gun legislation, I am more optimistic that Maine will eventually have stricter gun legislation,” Popovic said. “Although this issue can be very divisive, I have spoken to people on contrasting points of the political spectrum who can agree that something needs to be done. This makes me hopeful that our government may be able to work together to pass sensible gun legislation.”

“It really was a pleasure (that) we were invited to talk with the kids,” Breen said. “It took place after school, which is a busy time for kids and they took time out of their busy schedule to come learn about the legislative process, where we are in the session and what the chance is we will have any sort of substantial gun control legislation.”

Breen said it was nice to be able to connect with the high school students, something she tries to do at the statehouse with high school or college students through the Legislature’s Honorary Page program.

“Every opportunity I get (to connect with students) I do. I encouraged all of them to think about running for office — not if, but when — and reminded them how much of an impact we can have even at the very local level of a council or school committee,” Breen said.

Gattine said he was impressed with the level of maturity students brought to the difficult topic of gun regulation. This was the first time Gattine was invited to come speak with students at the high school since 2012 when he began representing Westbrook.

“I was glad I was able to come in and reflect with them how important this issue has become to students and how passionate they feel about it,” Gattine said. “This is a situation where students are trying to take part in the dialogue in a positive way. When I was in high school, we didn’t have to deal with things like this.”

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com.

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