NH is alone in New England, after Maine expands gun purchase background checks

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mills signs order
Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed a law Friday requiring background checks for people who buy guns that are publicly advertised for sale. Pictured, Mills in November signs an executive order establishing a panel to investigate the October shootings in Lewiston that killed 18 and critically injured 13. Photo/Maine Office of the Governor

AUGUSTA. Maine – People who buy guns in Maine through a private sale that is publicly advertised will be subject to a background check under new legislation signed by Gov. Janet Mills Friday, one day after the six-month anniversary of a mass shooting in the state that killed 18.

Before the new law, Maine only required background checks on gun sales by federally licensed firearms dealers, which is federal law and required in all states. The new Maine law leaves New Hampshire as the only New England state that does not require expanded background checks for gun sales. 

Thursday, the day before Mills signed the law, was the six-month anniversary of the shooting in Lewiston that left 18 people dead and 13 critically injured. Mills had declared in January, at her state of the state address, that “for the sake of our state, doing nothing is not an option,” in the wake of the shootings.

Friday, Mills said, “This law represents important, meaningful progress, without trampling on anybody’s rights, and it will better protect public safety by implementing reasonable reforms and by significantly expanding mental health resources.”

Maine joins 22 other states that have some form of expanded background check. A background check ensures the person buying the gun is not legally prohibited to do so because of a criminal record, mental health issue or other reason. 

Like New Hampshire, Maine does not require a permit to carry a gun and does not require guns to be registered.

The new law requires people who advertise a gun for sale online or in print, such as on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Uncle Henry’s Swap and Sell Guide (a popular gun marketplace in the state), and elsewhere, to check sales against the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the same place where federally licensed dealers check sales.

The new law also makes it a felony to sell weapons to prohibited buyers.

Mills said that the new law “will incentivize checks for private, unadvertised sales to unknown individuals through the threat of increased risk of prosecution and prison time,” while not changing the “Maine tradition” of transferring firearms “to family members or trusted friends.”

She also approved changing the state’s cumbersome yellow flag law to allow law enforcement to go directly to a judge for a protective custody warrant and remove a person’s weapons if they believe there’s a risk of harm. Previously, law enforcement had to get a doctor’s opinion that the person presented a risk.

Strengthening the law, officially the Extreme Risk Protection Order Law, is one move from the new legislation that could’ve prevented the Lewiston shootings. Mills cited the inability of law enforcement to take Robert Card, the Lewiston shooter, into protective custody to initiate the extreme risk protection order law and remove his weapons, despite the fact his family and fellow Army reserve soldiers had warned law enforcement of the danger they were afraid he posed.

Card’s guns were legally obtained, and he wasn’t prohibited from having a gun when the Oct. 25 shooting occurred. 

Mills has yet to act on a law that narrowly passed last week requiring a 72-hour waiting period between buying a gun and taking ownership of it, and banning bump stocks, which modify weapons so that they can shoot more bullets more quickly.

Mills also strengthened public safety in the state through the $127.4 million supplemental budget, which she signed earlier in the week. 

“Violence is not a simple problem, nor is the remedy a single, simple measure,” Mills said.

The budget establishes an Office of Violence Prevention at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It will fund crisis receiving centers in Lewiston, as well as Penobscot and  Aroostook counties, rural areas with fewer mental health services available for those in need. It also increases start-up funds for a hybrid center in Kennebec County, where Augusta is located. The centers build on a successful pilot in Portland, Maine’s largest city. The law also directs the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a plan to create a statewide network of crisis receiving centers.

Crisis receiving centers “are a proven model of behavioral crisis intervention, allowing any person experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis to get immediate, appropriate, and no-cost care,” Mills’ office said in a statement.

Mills’ budget included $5 million in one-time funding to create the Maine Mass Violence Care Fund to provide coverage for physical and mental health out-of-pocket expenses that are connected to a mass violence event in Maine and not covered by insurance. The fund will be invested by the Office of the State Treasurer with eligibility determined and proceeds distributed by the Maine Crime Victims Compensation Board within the Office of the Attorney General.

It also included $6 million in one-time funding to address a Federal funding shortfall from the Victims of Crime Act. The State funding will support community-based domestic violence and sexual assault services, civil legal representation for victims, government-based victim witness advocates, and housing and supportive services for elder abuse victims.

Of Maine’s 53 homicide deaths in 2023, 40 victims died from gunshots in the deaths where a method was listed, according to news reports and the Maine Department of Public Safety. That number included the 18 Lewiston victims. Card died by suicide after the shooting.

Before the Lewiston shootings, the most victims there had been in a single Maine mass shooting was four, not including the shooter. One of those was in April 2023, just months before the Lewiston shooting, when four people were shot in Bowdoin, Maine. Joseph Eaton, the son of two of the victims, has been charged with killing his parents, Cynthia and David Eaton, and their friends, Robert and Patti Eger. Three people were also injured by gunfire on Interstate 295 in Yarmouth after the shootings and before police arrested Eaton in Yarmouth.

That shooting was one of three quadruple murders in Maine since the Maine State Department of Public Safety began keeping records 30 years ago. In July 2014, in Saco, Joel Smith shot his wife, Heather, and their three children, ages 12, 7 and 4, before shooting himself. In September 2006, Christian Nielsen shot four people in Newry at the Black Bear Bed and Breakfast. 

An average of 163 people die by guns in Maine annually. 89% of them by suicide. Gun violence costs Maine $2.3 billion each year, of which $17 million is paid for by taxpayers, Everytown Research & Police, which uses CDC data to come up with its stats.

New Hampshire averages 142 gun deaths a year, with 89%, like Maine, death by suicide, according to Everytown. Gun violence costs New Hampshire $934 million a year, of which $18 million is paid by taxpayers.


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About this Author

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.