In the days after a shooter killed at least 18 people in Lewiston, Maine, advocates of stronger gun laws decried the state’s relatively lax gun laws.
Shannon Watts, the founder of the grassroots group Moms Demand Action, made this point in an Oct. 25 post on X.
Watts compared the restrictions on purchasing a popular over-the-counter cold medicine and the type of semiautomatic weapon believed to be used by the suspect.
“It is harder to buy Sudafed than an AR-15 in Maine,” Watts said, repeating the phrase five times in all capital letters.
The comparison of Sudafed laws and gun laws did not start with Watts’ post; it has been circulating in news reports and social media for at least five years. But is it accurate?
The answer hinges on the setting of the gun purchase. Laws that govern sales by federally licensed gun dealers are stronger than laws on sales by unlicensed dealers at gun shows or other private exchanges.
The rules for buying Sudafed
The rules for buying Sudafed are tight because one of its precursor chemicals can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, a dangerous drug. The federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 imposed new regulations for medications that contain ingredients such as pseudoephedrine, which is used to make Sudafed.
Maine’s restrictions on Sudafed sales hew closely to this federal law. A retailer may not sell more than 3.6 grams of the active ingredient to a customer in 24 hours; that’s the equivalent to about three regular packages. Sales are capped at 9 grams over a 30-day period.
In addition, the customer must present government-issued identification, from which the retailer must copy down the customer’s name and address, the amount of grams purchased, the date and time of the purchase, and the ID number and issuer of the card.
Although the law doesn’t require that this information be shared with other government entities, 38 states, including Maine, use a system called the National Precursor Log Exchange to share this data, tracking 80% of pseudoephedrine transactions nationally, according to the exchange.
The rules for buying a gun
It’s clear, then, that purchasing Sudafed requires more safeguards than purchasing, say, a pack of gum.
But is it more stringent than the process for buying a gun in Maine?
It depends on how the purchase is made.
If a purchase happens from a federally licensed dealer, either at a brick-and-mortar store or at a gun show, the transaction will be more complicated than purchasing Sudafed.
Buying Sudafed and a gun will both require an ID. The information of gun buyers in Maine will be accessible to law enforcement because the state is part of the National Precursor Log Exchange.
Gun purchases from a federally licensed dealer must be reported to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local law enforcement if one person purchases multiple handguns at the same time or within five consecutive business days.
Gun purchases from a federally licensed dealer are easier than buying Sudafed in one way: There are no limits on the numbers of guns that can be purchased at one time, unlike time limits on Sudafed sales.
In other ways, however, buying a gun from a licensed dealer is more complicated than buying Sudafed, said Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group.
It requires filling out Form 4473 from the ATF, in which prospective purchasers must attest that they are not prohibited from purchasing guns. Purchasers cannot buy a gun unless they are the intended recipient of the firearm, are not a convicted felon, a fugitive, dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military or are involuntarily committed to a mental health treatment. The completed forms must be kept permanently, including transferring them to the ATF if the seller goes out of business.
Also, the purchaser must pass a screening by the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. About 90% of these checks are instantly approved, and the rest are typically completed within three days.
Although some critics say that the data in the background check system isn’t as complete as it could be, it is still a more stringent process than the one needed to buy Sudafed.
Finally, there are restrictions on who can buy each product.
One is age. Under federal law, you must be 18 to buy a shotgun or a rifle and 21 to buy a handgun. (States can choose to set higher age minimums.) Maine has not set a minimum age for purchasing Sudafed, unlike such states as Alabama, Arkansas and Ohio, which have set the minimum age at 18.
Maine law specifically bars two other categories of potential gun purchasers: people convicted of assault or other violent misdemeanors, and convicted domestic abusers. People in those categories would be able to purchase Sudafed.
Buying from unlicensed gun dealers is easier
Where people who support tougher gun laws have a point are on purchases that do not involve a federally licensed dealer.
Federal law specifically rules out a required license if a person “makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”
This can sometimes be a fuzzy distinction, but it means many gun sellers do not need a license. And if they don’t have a license, the laws for federally licensed sellers don’t apply to their sales.
Gun shows can include either licensed dealers or private sellers. The licensed sellers need to run a background check on buyers, while the unlicensed sellers don’t.
In Maine, “individuals who would otherwise be blocked from purchasing a weapon can go to a private seller and purchase a weapon, no questions asked,” said Chris Harris, vice president for communications for Giffords, a group that lobbies for tougher gun laws. “This is the classic ‘gun show loophole’.”
The bottom line, Harris said, is that in Maine, “there is nothing to stop someone from buying a gun without so much as showing an ID, let alone going through a background check. That same person could not find a place to buy Sudafed without showing an ID.”
Watts said, “It is harder to buy Sudafed than an AR-15 in Maine.”
It depends on the context.
In most ways, the process for buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer under federal and Maine law is more stringent than federal and state laws governing the purchase of Sudafed. The gun purchase requires attesting to the buyer’s legal ability to buy a gun on a federal form, as well as passing an instant background check. In addition, many people with criminal convictions cannot buy a gun but can buy Sudafed.
However, if someone chooses to purchase a gun from an unlicensed seller, the process will likely be more stringent for buying Sudafed.
We rate the statement Half True.
RELATED: All of our fact-checks about guns