Doctor and Sportsman Debate Guns

My Mount Vernon friend Dr. Dan Onion and I have come together to share our thoughts on guns.

Dan: George, as town health officer for two small towns here in Western Kennebec County, I’m charged with finding ways to promote public health. I have practiced primary care and preventive medicine here in Central Maine for the past 45+ years. And I have taken care of many sick and injured patients as well as helped measurably reduce mortality in Franklin County through community-wide projects to reduce risks like smoking, diet and high blood pressure.

Gun violence is on the rise, as school and other mass shootings are becoming more and more common place. Several instances have been thankfully prevented recently in Maine. Domestic violence against women and children in Maine has been and continues to be a perennial cause of injury and death, the latter often perpetrated with guns (over 12 each year, half of all Maine homicides, and half are children under 13).

And finally, suicide by guns (half of all Maine suicides) is also a major risk and increasing here in Maine. All three examples are especially impacting teenagers and young adults, and thus dramatically increase the “years of potential life lost” as the “public healthies” like me use to measure the payoff of a public health issue intervention.

I grew up in rural Vermont, have hunted all my life, and get a deer every few years, but I don’t accept that we can’t do more to reduce these very real threats and bad outcomes associated with guns here in Maine.

George: Boy have things changed. When I was in elementary school, many of us brought knives to school and played knife games at recess. Today a kid can’t even bring a plastic knife to school.

In high school I would sometimes bring my shotgun and leave it in the back of the room so I could hunt after school in a nearby orchard. I talked recently with a friend who said both he and his teacher brought their shotguns to school and they hunted together after school. Today it’s a felony to bring a gun to school. I’m not sure, if they decide to allow teachers to bring guns to school, if a shotgun for bird hunting after school would qualify!

A recent news story in the Kennebec Journal by Kevin Miller reported on the positions of various candidates for governor on new gun laws. Essentially Republicans were against them and Democrats were for them. That’s not going to get the job done.
I thought Attorney General Janet Mills offered the best approach, saying it is a complicated issue, including mental illness and domestic abuse, and she hoped to bring all sides together to come up with ways we can address these problems. That is the only approach that will work. All sides need to step back, stop the angry rhetoric, and get together to find ways we can make our kids and all of us safer and more secure.

During my time at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I was proud of SAM’s support for successful legislation that took guns away from those served with temporary protection orders. At that time only permanent orders gave the judge the option of taking away a person’s guns. We worked with then- attorney General Steve Rowe to get that done.
Unfortunately it is very difficult for the police to get authority to enter that person’s house and make sure the guns are gone. That person can actually just give the guns to a relative, so they are still assessable to him.

And it is also difficult for the police to take those guns because they have no place to store them. Years ago I worked with my friend Ed Pineau, who was lobbying for SAM, for a bond issue that would give the police funding to build gun storage areas. But we were unsuccessful in winning legislative approval for that bond issue. This is still a problem.

Mental illness is also a complicated and difficult issue, particularly in evaluating the illness and determining who should have guns, and whether that ban should be temporary or permanent.

Dan: Yes, I was pretty good at marbles as well as mumblety-peg with my jackknife in grade school too. But it seems to me that the biggest new problem is a belief that anybody should be able to own and use automatic and semiautomatic military weapons. That’s a recent change in the last 10 years and seems to have preceded the mass shooting epidemic. These guns are illegal to hunt game with and they are being misused in horrible massacres almost every week across the US.

Some say we can never get rid of them “because people enjoy shooting them” as a hobby. But given the way they are being used to kill thousands of people every year in the US, is it not reasonable for many to forego the pleasures of target practicing with semi-automatics to save lives? The rights listed in the Bill of Rights are not absolute, but rather apply only if they do not deprive others of their rights; mass shooting victims are certainly deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Think of all the dangerous things we have eliminated to protect people and wildlife since you and I were kids: lead in gasoline, sinkers and paint; mercury thermometers; dioxin in our rivers; asbestos in our ceilings and brakes; and smoking in public places, to name a few. Freedom to do anything a person wants is unacceptable when it harms others, like driving on the wrong side of the road or drunk, don’t you agree?

George: One key problem is that the definition of an automatic firearm is very complicated. Lots of people don’t understand that they are talking about the same mechanisms that are available on my hunting rifles. We should be able to agree on banning bump stocks. And a limit on the bullet capacity for our guns is sensible. Apparently we are going to argue about the age at which you should be allowed to purchase a firearm. I guess some people would be alarmed to know that I had my own gun at age 12.

I can agree that most private gun sales should require a background check. But the Maine ballot measure calling for that went way too far, and was defeated, albeit by a fairly narrow margin. That fall, when it was on the ballot, I loaned a firearm to a friend which she kept through the deer season until she actually shot a deer.

That proposed law would have required a background check when I loaned her the gun and another background check when she gave my gun back to me. That’s ridiculous. So the private sale requirement should be more reasonable, with exceptions for family members and friends, particularly if the gun is only being loaned during hunting season.
During my last years at SAM, we provided members with a kit that included forms to fill out when they were selling a gun to someone they don’t know. We thought that was important to protect the gun seller.

I’m not aware that someone who sells a gun privately has ever been held liable if that gun is later used in a crime, but if that was possible it certainly would give most private gun sellers a strong incentive to get a background check done. Many gun sellers in Maine now perform background checks for private sales and quite a few private sellers take advantage of that, even though they have to pay for that service.
I fear that we are going to get nothing done, or that we’re going to enact minor law changes that will not address this serious problem in a comprehensive way. That will be a shame.

Dan: It sure would be a shame. Let’s hope we can avoid being tripped up by pursuing only the perfect, and to strive to do better, a few steps at a time.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.