Senator Susan Collins on the Gun Control Bill

The Republican senator on breaking with her party to support gun control
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell

Maine has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the country and the lowest rate of violent crime. That makes any issue related to gun control difficult. My family had hunting rifles in the closet when I was growing up, and I believe in the Second Amendment. But I also think we need guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are mentally ill.

I knew I might pay a political price for supporting this legislation. My hope is that I can convince people that I’m right—or at least that I took the time to study it. What’s unbelievable are the ads that came out against me. I’m used to negative ads; as a moderate Republican, I’ve always been targeted. But this took the prize. Not only did the ad misrepresent my position on the Second Amendment, it ends by saying the person I sound like is Barack Obama. Then there’s a picture of my face morphing into his, which is truly quite a trick.

I’m told the president did talk to some Republicans, but he didn’t call me. Senator [Joe] Manchin [D-W.Va.] must have spoken to me a dozen times to solicit my thoughts. We had a conversation where I said, “Look, having background checks on family members just doesn’t make sense.” He completely agreed with that and incorporated it into the bill. I didn’t want the federal government to hold the paperwork, which could lead to a national registry of gun owners. In the end, this was a balanced, thoughtful approach to gun control that doesn’t infringe on rights but might stop someone from being killed.

I thought it would be very difficult for people to vote against the bill once they read it. This was such a reasonable and modest proposal that, ironically, had language in it which the NRA has been seeking for years. What bothered me most was to see the provisions distorted in a way that made the bill unrecognizable. I think the vote reflected a current of deep distrust for government. One person who’s upset with my vote said to me, “The language isn’t that bad, but it’s a slippery slope. You do this and then one day it will be Chuck Schumer’s [D-N.Y.] language, and then it will lead to the government confiscating our guns.” I couldn’t believe it.

There’s always pressure to stick with the party. But I cared about this. I felt such a sense of sadness when the bill was defeated. Despite the fact that I’m congenitally optimistic, I’m not hopeful that this will be resurrected. I think the idea of background checks is dead.— As told to Diane Brady

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