Creating a Myth About Gun Laws
by Al Diamon
Vague question, vague answers: The MaineToday Media newspapers deserve credit for funding a statewide poll on gun issues. For too long, the debate on these matters has relied on questionable assertions, such as the one that claims this state has the highest per-capita rate of gun ownership in the country. Since Maine has no gun registration law, there was never any hard evidence to back up that statement, but it has survived in spite of plenty of indications to the contrary.
Now, thanks to the MaineToday survey, published on Jan. 13, we finally have some solid data on gun ownership and related matters.
Unfortunately, we also have the basis for a new round of mythmaking. The poll asked a question about restrictions on firearms, a question that’s already contributing to confusion.
“Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?” MTM inquired, offering three options. “There should be no restrictions on owning guns. There should be some restrictions on owning guns. All guns should be illegal for everyone except police and authorized personnel.”
Not surprisingly, 79 percent of respondents chose the “some restrictions” option. But it’s difficult to assess what that means. Support for “some” limits could be interpreted as backing for those currently in place, such as bans on possession by felons and those with mental-health issues. It could signal a willingness to extend prohibitions to other groups (minors, non-citizens, those who haven’t taken a certified safety course). It could include mandatory background checks for buyers at gun shows and private sales.
MaineToday didn’t bother to inquire about any of those possibilities, so we don’t know. Instead, the poll asked about banning semi-automatic guns (but not so-called assault rifles), large ammo clips, and bullets designed to penetrate protective vests.
The fallout was predictable. By the following morning, headlines began showing up that read, “Mainers support gun restrictions” (Lewiston Sun Journal) and “Poll: Mainers support gun restrictions” (Portsmouth Herald). MaineToday’s Portland Press Herald carried a follow-up story on Jan. 14 that reminded readers that “nearly 80 percent of Mainers favor some restrictions on guns.”
Just because that statement is backed by polling doesn’t make it useful or informative. Without more research, it’s more likely to obscure the facts in the debate over gun control than to clarify matters.
Bangor bound: The Bollard is expanding its business relationship with the Bangor Daily News, a move that will result in wider circulation of the Portland-based monthly (which is also home base for this blog). Starting with the February issue, The Bollard will be distributed in the greater Bangor area, as well as in Lewiston-Auburn and Waterville. The expansion will boost the number of copies circulated from 16,000 to 20,000.
“We are not doing a separate ‘northern edition,’” said Bollard editor/publisher Chris Busby in an email, “but readers in those cities can expect to find content more relevant to their area in future issues — e.g. restaurant reviews, arts listings, and dumps. The Bangor expansion is made possible through our media partnership with the BDN, which will be selling ads into The Bollard as part of a financial arrangement by which they also help cover the cost of the circulation increase.”
Speaking of our pal in Bangor: The Bangor Daily News doesn’t publish a Sunday edition, but it does post fresh material on its website over the weekend. That means the Lewiston Sun Journal, with whom the Bangor paper has a story-sharing arrangement, has access to articles for its Sunday paper that won’t show up in print in the BDN until Monday. The Sun Journal often takes full advantage of that opportunity to fill its pages with Maine news it doesn’t have to pay for.
On Jan. 13, for instance, the Lewiston paper devoted space at the top of its front page to a Bangor story on the dangers of a new form of bath salts. I’m at a loss to understand how getting scooped by another Maine paper benefits the BDN. I’m also unable to figure out why, week after week, the Sun Journal can’t come up with more than one decent, self-produced story for page one and has to resort to cut-and-paste journalism to cover its inadequacies.
A thorn among the roses: One of the few bright lights at the Sun Journal is State House reporter Scott Thistle. His reporting consistently displays depth and insight. He’s also not afraid to challenge the powers that be.
On Jan. 12, the administration of Gov. Paul LePage planned a briefing for legislators on the governor’s budget plan. The news media was told the meeting was closed (there would be a separate briefing for reporters later in the day), and they would not be allowed to attend. Most of these alleged journalists meekly accepted their exclusion, but not Thistle. He cited the state open-meeting law that allows the public to attend meetings of elected officials. He stood up to administration intimidation, including a reference to calling security officers, and the wimpiness of legislators in attendance, who tried to pass the buck to the governor’s office.
Thistle was reasonable and polite. He was also persistent. And, after some confusion, he won. He (and his too-compliant colleagues) were allowed to sit in. You can listen to his principled push for your right to know here.
Taxing work: MaineToday Media State House reporter Steve Mistler’s “Morning Briefing” is must reading for anyone who wants to know what’s going on in Maine government. On Jan. 14, Mistler reported that Gov. LePage’s budget calls for repealing the sales tax exemption for daily newspapers and most other publications.
Mistler quotes from the LePage budget briefing document: “The only other products manufactured in Maine that are afforded tax exempt status are ‘necessities of life’ (i.e. grocery staples, medicines, prosthetic devices, residential electricity, wood pellets, etc.). The product exemption for publications does not rise to the level of being a necessity.”
The declining circulation figures for Maine papers certainly lend credence to that claim.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.