Nov. 16—Maine lawmakers have submitted more than a half dozen new bills to restrict gun access, promote mental health care and support victims in the wake of the Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston that left 18 people dead and 13 others injured.
While some bills aim to prevent potential shooters from having access to guns, one proposal would make it easier for people to sue if they are harmed at a business or facility where they are not allowed to carry a firearm for their own protection.
A list of after-deadline bills submitted for the upcoming legislative session and obtained by the Press Herald includes at least seven bill titles that appear to be related to the shootings. Only bill titles have been submitted so far, so the intent is not always immediately clear.
Some lawmakers reached Thursday provided details about their proposals, while the scope of others is unknown or still being developed by lawmakers and advocates. And it's not yet known which of the bills will be taken up when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 3 for its second session because leaders from both parties must first agree that each one qualifies as emergency legislation.
But the list of bills provides insight into legislative priorities in the wake of the state's deadliest mass shooting and sets the stage for what could be a historic debate over gun legislation in the coming session.
DEMOCRATS EYE GUN SAFETY
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, each submitted bills in response to the Lewiston shootings, but details were sparse Thursday.
Christine Kirby, Jackson's communications director, said in an email that Jackson's bill does not have language yet and is likely to be handed off to Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, to sponsor, as her community was directly affected by the shootings.
"Our goal would be to use it as a vehicle to do something meaningful in the wake of the mass shooting in Lewiston," Kirby said. "As President Jackson has said on multiple occasions, he believes that there must be a way to come together to prevent future tragedies from happening. We can find a way to keep people safe while also respecting responsible gun owners."
A spokesperson for Talbot Ross said details of her proposal were not available Thursday. "At this point, it is just a title and more policy details will arise after ongoing conversations with stakeholders," Mary Erin Casale said.
Earlier this month, the House speaker told the Press Herald that she intended to revisit existing laws such as the state's yellow flag law, which allows police to take away the guns of people in mental health crisis, as well as push for reforms such as expanded background checks.
Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, co-chair of the Legislature's gun safety caucus, said she was not familiar with the details of either bill but that Democratic lawmakers have been talking with leadership about priorities.
"Everything is on the table," Doudera said. "There are ongoing conversations and nobody is going to let this tragedy fade from their minds. ... I feel very hopeful that we will make something good come out of this really terrible tragedy, something that will make our state safer."
REPUBLICANS PITCH ALERTS, LIABILITY FOR 'GUN-FREE ZONES'
A proposal from Rep. Jim White, R-Guilford, would allow people who are harmed in "gun-free zones," which prohibit the possession of firearms, to sue the owner of the facility for not providing adequate protection.
State law prohibits firearms at any business where alcohol is consumed as long as the business posts that no firearms are allowed. It wasn't clear if such signs were posted at Schemengees Bar & Grill or Just-in-Time Recreation, the two sites where gunman Robert Card went on his deadly rampage. Under White's proposal, a business that meets the standard could be held liable by victims or their families.
"This will allow the individual who's harmed because of the gun-free zone to sue for liability and will give (gun-free zones) the responsibility to protect people," White said. "If I have a store and put up a gun-free zone, and you're harmed between the store and the car, then I'm supposed to be responsible for protecting you if you could have normally protected yourself."
"It's not saying no one will be allowed to create a gun-free zone, it's just saying that if you do, you must assume the responsibility of providing security for the people involved," White said.
Another proposal would create a system to notify firearms dealers of statewide law enforcement alerts for dangerous people or people in crisis.
Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, said his idea is similar to the concept of an AMBER Alert for a missing child. "Why can't we do a yellow alert for anytime a statewide alert is issued by law enforcement?" Andrews said. "Why shouldn't we send an alert to firearms dealers to say, 'Don't sell to this guy. Heads up.' "
He said he came up with the proposal after talking with owners of gun shops in the wake of the Lewiston shootings. About a month before the Lewiston shootings, the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office had issued a statewide File 6 alert notifying other law enforcement agencies that they were looking for Card so they could request a wellness check.
Andrews said firearms dealers in the state weren't aware of that. "My intention is to try and create some kind of real-time alert system ... to increase communication between everybody, because I think that's where things broke down," Andrews said.
MENTAL HEALTH AND VICTIM SUPPORT
Other proposals that have come in are focused on mental health and support for victims of the Lewiston shootings.
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, has a bill titled, "An Act to Create a Lewiston Strong License Plate" that would create a new license plate with proceeds going to the families of victims.
"After what happened I think we're all trying to find ways to support our communities that are affected and the families affected in positive ways," said Brakey, who credited a constituent with the idea.
Another bill, from Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, seeks to ensure that donations received by the victims of the Lewiston shootings and their families are tax deductible.
Cloutier said she is working with Maine Revenue Services and is looking into federal tax rules to determine if the bill will be needed.
"It's really a placeholder at this point," she said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, has proposed "An Act to Increase Availability of Mental Health Care Facilities in Maine by Eliminating Certificate of Need Requirements for Mental Health Care Facilities," according to the list.
Libby announced her bill shortly after the Lewiston shootings. She said a certificate of need is a lengthy and expensive process by which Maine health providers must seek approval not only from the state, but also from competitors, in order to offer new services or build a new facility.
"We have a chronic, systemic shortage of mental health care in Maine. We saw the effect of that shortage last week during the tragic events that took place in Lewiston," Libby said at the time. "If we really want to tackle the root cause, then we should eliminate any and all obstacles to maximizing access to mental health care in Maine. Repealing CON is the first step in eliminating those obstacles."
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, also has two bills that appear to be related to mental health, though it's not clear if they were submitted in response to the Lewiston shootings.
The bill titles, according to the list, are, "An Act to Increase Reimbursement Rates for Outpatient Psychiatry" and "An Act to Attract and Retain Behavioral Health Clinicians."
A spokesperson for Senate Republicans said Stewart was not available for an interview Thursday.
MORE PROPOSALS COULD COME IN
Legislative leaders from both parties will decide in the coming weeks which after-deadline bills will be considered in the upcoming session. More proposals could still come in since lawmakers can continue to submit new bills even after the session begins, although legislative leaders would have to approve them before they move forward.
As of Thursday morning, a total of 20 bills had so far been submitted after the Sept. 29 deadline, including those inspired by the Lewiston tragedy.
The governor can also introduce legislation at any point in the upcoming session and has been in discussions with lawmakers.
"As the governor has said, she believes action is needed," Ben Goodman, a spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills, said in an email. "What that action will be must be the product of a broad discussion among a diverse group of voices, including lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, public safety officials, public health officials, members of the judicial system, and advocates on all sides, among others.
"As she has said, she is not taking any option off the table and her office continues to reach out to members of the Legislature on both sides of the aisle to continue discussions."
Note: This story was updated Nov. 17 to correct a reference to the state law defining gun-free zones and the legal status of the Lewiston businesses attacked in the mass shootings. It was not clear whether they met the legal definition of gun free zones at the time of the shootings.