LePage’s about face on gun background checks

You may have heard the phrase, “Molon Labe.”

It means “Come and take them.” It was a defiant call used by King Leonidas of Sparta when his army was asked to lay down their weapons by the Persians during the battle of Thermopylae. It was made popular via a film called “300,” in which a lot of very sweaty, barely-clothed men conduct absurd battle scenes in an orgy of blood and violence. Some hardcore gun rights advocates use the phrase as a rallying cry. The inference is that, if the government tries to take their guns, they, like the Spartans, will fight to the death to prevent it.

As dangerous and delusional a concept as this is — the government has aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons — there’s a substantial subset of gun ownership advocates who believe armed rebellion is a suitable response to overbearing gun control laws.

As he’s done with the “Sovereign Citizens” and other right-wing absurdists, Gov. Paul LePage has done his best to assure the Molon Labe crowd that he is one of them. Through his over-the-top rhetoric on guns and hatred for government, LePage has become a revered figure among the most extreme gun-rights advocates.

Gov. Paul LePage displays his concealed weapons permit in this photograph released by his office on Feb. 14, 2013. Courtesy of governor’s office

LePage has cultivated the image that he loves guns, thinks everyone should have them, and believes that disputes in society should be settled through shooting people. He staged a photo shoot of himself holding his concealed carry permit and released it to the press, a foolish gesture coming from a man who has armed state police guarding him 24 hours a day. And he’s made statements over the years ranging from telling citizens to shoot suspected drug dealers to fantasies about shooting a Democratic legislator “right between the eyes.

LePage joined the NRA last year in the fight against Question 3, the referendum that would have expanded background check requirements currently used for sales in gun stores to the private market. (Disclosure: I worked on the Question 3 campaign.) In his fevered opposition to the referendum, LePage made numerous references to the Maine Constitution’s declaration that the right to bear arms “shall never be questioned.”

His statements made it clear that not only did he oppose extending background checks to private sales, but that he believed background checks themselves were unconstitutional. His reading of the Maine Constitution meant that criminals, the mentally unstable, and domestic violence perpetrators should have unfettered access to firearms. “Shall never be questioned” is a pretty broad declaration, and to LePage, there’s no deviation from the literal sense of the phrase.

But now, out of the blue, LePage has switched sides.

In his weekly radio address last week, LePage flipped 180 degrees and now appears to fully endorse background checks for firearms purchases.

“The federal government must do a better job to provide adequate resources for background checks on people purchasing firearms.”

That’s the opening sentence in his weekly address. Not only is he advocating for background checks, he thinks the federal government should pay for them!

Right now, shoot-the-government types all across Maine are staring blankly at their “300” posters and wondering what on earth happened to LePage.

It’s a good question.

Here are a few more quotes from LePage, aka, the former king of Sparta:

“We must ensure the background check system is working.”

“We need adequate funding for background checks, and we need strict enforcement of the laws already on the books. We also need to ensure all mandatory reporters are submitting mental illness data.”

Those quotes are sure an awful long way from “shall not be questioned.” In fact, LePage is saying gun ownership needs to be questioned — by the federal government.

So where did this change of heart come from?

Coincidentally, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions also recently called for a review of the nation’s background check system. Sessions is pushing to make sure the system is working, and has likely sent out the word to Trump Administration franchise states to echo the call.

What likely occurred here is that LePage’s team was given a set of talking points from the Trump Administration, and didn’t bother reconciling them with his past positions.

So now, on paper, LePage supports background checks. And he wants the federal government to get more money to implement them.

One could almost feel badly for the Molon Labe crowd. They’ve lost their hero. LePage laid down his proverbial weapons, and pledged allegiance to the dreaded federal government.

The governor’s fealty to the Trump Administration is nothing new or surprising. But for those out there who think LePage has an ideology that supports his actions, think again. Last year, he opposed background checks because the NRA told him to. This year, he supports them because the Trump administration told him to.

Not exactly a Spartan warrior-king. Just another political opportunist with a malleable belief system.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.