Two Faculty Debate Gun Control Ballot in Maine

Two Bowdoin professors recently spoke on both sides of a Maine gun control referendum

Quinby House hosted a discussion last week between government professors Jean Yarbrough and Jeffrey Selinger about a referendum on this year’s ballot asking whether Maine should require “background checks before a gun sale or transfer between people who are not licensed firearm dealers.”

Yarbrough, Bowdoin’s Gary M. Pendy Professor in Social Sciences, encouraged students to vote against the measure, while Selinger, an associate professor of government and legal studies, argued in favor.

The event was hosted by Quinby House, the McKeen Center, and Bowdoin Political Union (BPU). Indre Altman ’18, a member of the Bowdoin Political Union, moderated the discussion.

The main goal was “to promote a controversial discussion on campus,” Altman said. BPU hopes to encourage students to “stand up, say what you think, and be confident that your peers aren’t going to judge you or group you into some stereotype.”

Poster of the event

The professors modeled this kind of engagement in a controversial issue without self-consciousness. Despite their disagreement, both maintained a playful tone throughout the evening.

“My argument goes something like this,” Selinger said, starting his opening statement. “Why not?” He then sat down, eliciting laughter from much of the crowd.

Yarbrough quickly stepped up to the podium to respond with a grin, “multiple reasons why not.”

“Ah, I thought I’d won!” Selinger called from his seat.

If Question 3 passes, anyone who purchases a gun from a private owner will first be required to get a background check. It will also require background checks for gun transfers—situations like borrowing a gun from a friend.

Throughout the night, Yarbrough questioned the necessity of these background checks in Maine.

“We have to ask ourselves whether what we’re proposing to do is a solution to a problem that Maine is facing,” Yarbrough said. “We have fewer crimes per year than Chicago has on a good weekend, and only half of them are from guns.”

Selinger argued that the inconvenience of background checks did not outweigh the benefits of closing the private sales loophole.

“We have criminals in Maine too,” he said. “If you believe that everyone who uses guns and owns guns should have a background check then why not?” He added, “It’s not such a terrible burden.”

Both professors were willing to concede some ground to the other. Yarbrough admitted that “there is a loophole with private sales.” However, she said the referendum’s additional requirement of background checks for transfers went too far.

“If the citizens of Maine want to close [the private sales] loophole,” she said, “they should tailor a law to do that and not broaden it to extend to transfers, which is really burdensome.”

Selinger agreed that the regulation was not perfect.

“If I could wave a magic wand and rewrite this,” he said, “I would include an exception for hunting rifles and shotguns. They’re nearly never involved in violent crime, and that would relieve a lot of people of a great burden.”

Nonetheless, he insisted that passing the referendum was better than the alternative. “Given the choice of the status quo or what we have here, I think it’s eminently reasonable.”

Afterwards, he and Yarbrough both spoke highly of the event.

“[Many of our students] have never really been introduced to the rural arguments,” Yarbrough said. “I was happy to contribute to that educational process.”

Selinger said it was “great fun.”

“It’s always a pleasure to visit a college house, be with students, and talk with them about the political questions that most interest them,” he continues. “It doesn’t take much to get me to come out for an event like that.”

thumb: