Mass shooting turns spotlight on Maine’s sparse gun laws

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LEWISTON, MAINE – Mass shootings at a bowling alley and bar that left 18 people dead in Lewiston on Wednesday evening have brought Maine’s complicated relationship with guns and how to regulate them to the forefront once again.

In the past three years, state lawmakers have proposed nearly four dozen bills to regulate the sale, carry and liability of guns in Maine, but most have not passed the Legislature. A “yellow flag” law enacted in 2019 lets law enforcement take guns away from someone they suspect of posing a threat to themselves or others, but officials concede it is underutilized.

Maine ranks in the middle of the pack among other states when it comes to gun safety laws, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, and the laws in place appeared to have done little to stop the suspect in the mass shooting in Lewiston.

Maine does not require a permit to carry a firearm in most cases. State lawmakers have rejected proposals for background checks and limits on accessories that make guns more easy to shoot. It also does not have a ban on assault weapons, unlike two other New England states.

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Maine State Rep. Kristen Cloutier

Kristen Cloutier, who lives in Lewiston and is the Assistant House Majority Leader, said the shooting in her hometown was “surreal and heartbreaking,” and called for “bold” legislative action to address gun violence.

“This has only strengthened my own resolve to do whatever I can to help prevent similar tragedies like this from happening again in other communities. As a state, we must do more to address gun violence and keep ourselves, our families, our friends and our neighbors safe,” Cloutier wrote in a statement to the press.

“Words are not enough — they never have been. We must take bold action,” she added.

The Maine Gun Safety Coalition immediately called on state lawmakers to pass an assault weapons ban calling the events in Lewiston “horrific, senseless tragedies.”

Rep. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth), a member of the state’s Gun Safety Caucus, said it was very difficult to talk about the mass shooting in Lewiston, after spending years fighting “bad gun bills” and trying to advance gun safety laws.

“The years I had to listen to my colleagues stand and say we don’t need gun safety legislation and Maine is the safest place in the country. To have my worst nightmares happen, is just devastating,” Millett said in an interview with The Maine Monitor.

In another development, US Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat, told a news conference Thursday evening he would drop his opposition to an assault weapons ban that has stalled in Congress.

“I have opposed efforts to ban deadly weapons of war, like the assault rifle used to carry out this crime,” Golden said. “The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the U.S. Congress to ban assault rifles, like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing in my hometown of Lewiston, Maine.”

Details emerge about man alleged to have shot 18 people 

A manhunt was underway Thursday by police to find the man suspected of firing multiple shots at two locations, killing 18 and wounding 13. Photos released by law enforcement show a man carrying a semiautomatic-style rifle.

The suspect, Robert R. Card, 40, of Bowdoin, has a history of mental health problems and is a trained firearms instructor, according to the Associated Press.

Card is a petroleum supply specialist and Sgt. 1st Class in the Army Reserve, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army confirmed to the Portland Press Herald Thursday. The spokesperson told the newspaper that Card enlisted in 2002 and has received multiple awards but has not been deployed in combat.

Maine State Police Thursday issued an arrest warrant for Card on eight counts of murder. Col. William Ross said during a press briefing the counts will increase once the 10 other victims are identified. Ross said Card is considered “armed and dangerous,” and urged people not to approach him but to call 911 or tip lines 207-213-9526 or 207-509-9002.

The Sun Journal reported that Card had spent two weeks at a mental health facility this summer. It is unknown if Card was voluntarily admitted or involuntarily committed to the facility.

People who are involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital by a district court may not own or possess firearms in Maine, according to state law. Violating the law is a class D misdemeanor crime.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that police took Card for an evaluation in mid-July after military officials grew concerned about his erratic behavior while he was training with the U.S. Army Reserves at the Military Academy at West Point in New York, according to an official who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the information. The official told the AP that military commanders called the New York state police, who took Card to the Keller Army Community Hospital for evaluation.

When asked at a press briefing why Card was able to access a gun despite his reported history of mental health challenges, Mike Sauschuck, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, said “those are all valid questions and certainly questions that we are looking into now, but not questions that we can answer today,” given the ongoing manhunt.

Maine grapples with foreseeable harm

Maine legislators passed the “yellow flag” law in 2019 that allows police to petition a court to remove guns from a person that a medical expert says presents “a likelihood of foreseeable harm” to themselves or others either because of suicidal or violent threats against others.

The Associated Press reported that Maine’s yellow flag law is weaker than so-called “red flag” laws found in some 20 other states. The Maine law requires police first to get a medical practitioner to evaluate the person and find them to be a threat before police can petition a judge to order the person’s firearms to be seized, the AP said.

It was not clear Thursday if the law came into play regarding the suspect in the Lewiston shooting.

Maine’s yellow flag law is underused, police acknowledge. Maine Public Radio reported that the law was used two dozen times in the first two years it was in effect. Earlier this year, law enforcement noted that the law is “not being used on a regular and responsive basis” and cited a lack of available medical professionals to complete the assessments, according to a report.

Barbara Cardone, spokeswoman for the state judicial branch, said Thursday involuntary commitment orders and petitions under the “yellow flag” law are confidential court records. She declined to say whether any such court records existed for Card.

“All of these kinds of records are confidential, so I cannot provide you with any information,” Cardone wrote.

Edward Davis, who was Boston’s police commissioner during the 2013 Marathon bombings, said the weapon in photos released by police appeared to be an assault-style rifle, most likely an AR-15 or an M-4, which is the military version of the AR-15.

Davis, who now runs his own security company, noted that he spends time in Maine and has had tense conversations with Mainers about gun ownership.

“I have guns, but they need to be regulated,” Davis said in an interview with The Maine Monitor.

The suspect in the shootings, Card, has a history of mental health problems. “We should have an absolute prohibition on anybody like that having guns,” Davis said.

Maine will now grapple with how to respond to one of its worst mass casualty events.

Similar shootings have shaken the country, including the 2022 Buffalo grocery store shooting that killed 10, and the 2021 spa shooting spree in Atlanta that killed eight people.

“We continue to monitor the horrific situation in the greater Lewiston area as the manhunt is underway for the person of interest in the Lewiston mass shooting. We grieve for the families of the 18 who were killed and 13 injured in this senseless tragedy,” Maine House Republicans said in a news release on Thursday.

Stephen King, famous Maine horror and science fiction author, said on X, formerly known as Twitter, Thursday morning that these kinds of shootings don’t happen in other countries.

“The shootings occurred less than 50 miles from where I live,” he wrote to his 7 million followers. “I went to high school in Lisbon. It’s the rapid-fire killing machines, people. This is madness in the name of freedom. Stop electing apologists for murder.”

A tired fight for change

Everytown For Gun Safety, a gun safety advocacy group, ranked Maine 25th in the nation in terms of gun laws.

Maine law prohibits any person convicted of a crime and sentenced to a year or more in prison from possessing a firearm. People under a protection from abuse order for harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner or child also may not possess a gun.

State lawmakers in recent years have rejected ideas to prohibit people from possessing “rapid-fire modification” devices for guns that increase the number of bullets that can be shot at one time or to require background checks for purchasers at private gun shows.

Maine lawmakers also rejected a proposed background check exemption for people with concealed weapons permits when they go to purchase a firearm, and legislation that would regulate the manufacture, distribution and possession of “untraceable and undetectable” firearms.

A proposal that would allow certain people to carry concealed handguns on school property narrowly failed in the Maine Legislature in June.

Several more pieces of gun legislation are expected to be discussed by lawmakers next year when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Millett, the lawmaker from Cape Elizabeth, has a bill that would allow a person to bring a civil lawsuit against gun manufacturers for selling “abnormally dangerous” guns, because the product was “most suitable for assaultive purposes” rather than hunting, self-defense or sport, or because it converts a legal firearm into an illegal firearm, or is marketed to minors.

She said in an interview Thursday it is time for legislators to listen to the people they represent and to be proactive about gun safety.

Still, lawmakers will face barriers to getting substantial legislation passed next year while they meet for a short time and with restrictions on the kinds of bills that can be worked on.

“We had a host of bills this past session and a good deal of them didn’t go anywhere,” Millett said. “And now that we’re in the short session there’s a lot less latitude for legislators to put in any new legislation for consideration.”

At least one proposed bill that will go to lawmakers next year would restore gun rights to some people convicted of nonviolent crimes if they are not convicted or any additional crimes and 10 years have passed. Criminal law experts have already raised multiple concerns about how the bill is written.

Ten states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, have assault weapons bans.

On the federal level, President Joe Biden again called for a ban on assault weapons following the shooting in Lewiston.

Biden urged Congressional Republicans to work with Democrats to pass a bill that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. He also called for universal background checks, safe storage of guns and an end to liability immunity for gun manufacturers.


This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.


 

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