Opponents of a Maine ballot initiative that would require background checks for all firearms sales and transfers have raised less than 2 percent of the money that supporters of the Michael R. Bloomberg-backed gun safety measure have collected.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow for Todd Tolhurst, president of Gun Owners of Maine, who is hoping to drum up enough opposition to persuade residents to reject the ballot measure in November.
“There’s a quite a bit of disparity there,” Mr. Tolhurst said of the lopsided financial support. “The massive amount of money that the other side has available to them to buy staffing, to buy advertising, to get the message out, makes this very much a David and Goliath contest. And the smart money is on Goliath.”
But it’s also why Mr. Tolhurst likes to point out the source of the money donated to support the initiative, in hopes that independent Mainers will cast aside the background check measure as they did a 2014 initiative to curtail bear hunts that also received the bulk of its funding from out-of-state interest groups.
“Mainers are an independent people, and they don’t like outsiders coming in and dictating how we should do things,” he said.
The group supporting the initiative, Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, has raised $2.3 million this year — with Mr. Bloomberg’s group Everytown for Gun Safety directly providing $1.7 million of the funds.
Campaign finance records show that Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, which is affiliated with the billionaire former New York mayor’s group, donated about $433,000 to the gun ownership organization when it dissolved this year.
Other top donations came from Washington resident and venture capitalist Nicholas Hanauer — who gave $125,000 and is donating large sums to gun safety ballot measures in other states this year — and Maine resident and author Stephen King, who has given $25,000.
Before it dissolved, the Moms group was almost exclusively funded by Everytown. Of the $1.4 million collected since its August 2015 formation, $1.3 million came directly from Everytown.
Meanwhile, three opposition groups — including the National Rifle Association — have collected just under $45,000, according to the latest campaign finance records available.
Officials from the NRA did not return messages seeking comment, but Mr. Tolhurst said he believes the group is opting to spend big elsewhere this year, based on conversations with the organization’s representatives.
“The NRA is fighting on a lot of different fronts right now,” he said. “There is a lot they are doing, and that doesn’t leave a lot up here for Maine and its four little electoral votes.”
The Virginia-based NRA, known for its lobbying and fundraising power in elections across the country, could face similar criticism for pushing an outsider agenda. It has provided about $40,000 this year to fund opposition to the background check initiative in Maine — a figure that pales in comparison with the $375,000 provided to defeat a similar initiative in Nevada this year.
But that hasn’t stopped the group from highlighting the outside influence of Mr. Bloomberg as part of its campaign in the Pine Tree State.
“Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pouring millions into trying to make the state of Maine just like New York City when it comes to gun control,” Chris Cox, executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said at a luncheon last week in Portland. “Whether or not you own a gun, you need to know that Question 3 would be a nightmare for all of you.”
The ballot measure was initially sponsored by Judi and Wayne Richardson, South Portland residents who lost their 25-year-old daughter, Darien, to gun violence in 2010 — a case that remains unsolved. Investigators were unable to trace ownership of the gun because no records are required for transfers or sales.
‘The year of gun safety’
The ballot measure would require a background check for every sale and transfer of a firearm by a licensed firearms dealer. Exceptions would be made for transfers between family members, while parties are hunting or sport shooting, or in emergency self-defense.
Individuals who are not licensed dealers would have to visit a dealer to facilitate the sale or transfer, and those who do not could be charged with a misdemeanor on a first offense and with a felony for any subsequent offense.
Firearms-related initiatives historically have not been prevalent on state ballots, with activists typically targeting state legislatures for changes, said Craig Burnett, a researcher on ballot measures at Hofstra University in New York.
Such initiatives that do end up on ballots “fail a lot more than they pass,” Mr. Burnett said.
An exception is Everytown’s 2014 successful effort in Washington to expand background checks. Everytown this year is engaged in support of a background check ballot measure in Nevada and an initiative in Washington that would allow a court to issue a risk-protection order banning a person from accessing a firearm for a specified period.
“2016 will be the year of gun safety. If elected leaders won’t change the laws that make it too easy for dangerous people to access guns, the American people will change the laws themselves,” said Stacey Radnor, a spokeswoman for Everytown. “As we saw at the 2014 ballot, when a background check vote was first brought to the state of Washington, when voters get a chance to vote up or down on gun safety ballot measures, they say yes.”
But Mr. Tolhurst said the initiative in Maine could penalize otherwise law-abiding gun owners and has the potential for unintended consequences.
Though an exception in the law would allow gun owners to let others borrow their firearms for hunting or sport shooting, Mr. Tolhurst reads the ballot language to mean that the temporary transfer of the firearm can be considered legal only “while the transferee is hunting or trapping” — meaning a gun owner couldn’t loan a rifle to a friend who intends to go on a weekend hunting trip.
It also would create a de facto ban on handgun purchases by people ages 18 to 20 because federal law does not allow federally licensed firearms dealers to sell handguns to anyone younger than 21.
Without more financial support, Mr. Tolhurst said, it may be tough to get his message to voters.
“Before we talk to them, most people think it’s a good idea. On the surface, who could disagree with keeping guns away from bad guys?” he said. “The less you know about this bill, the better it sounds.”