Nov. 5—Maine's gun laws are more lax than in most of New England and among the least restrictive in the country, according to gun safety advocates.
But those advocates say they hope to change that in the aftermath of the Lewiston shootings. And the experience of some other states indicates they may have success.
States such as Connecticut, Nevada and Florida passed stronger gun laws in the wake of mass shootings. And while federal legislation has mostly stalled, a number of states have reformed their gun laws in response to the wave of mass shootings in the United States over the past 20 to 25 years.
Until last week, Maine had never experienced a mass shooting similar to what happened in Lewiston. The killing of 18 people also was the deadliest nationwide so far this year.
Advocates for tighter gun laws say there is much Maine can do to reduce the risk of future violence. Maine gets an "F" grade for gun safety from Giffords Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun safety laws. The group was founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, who survived a shooting in 2011.
Maine has plenty of company nationwide — 24 other states also received a failing grade. But Maine, along with New Hampshire, is an outlier in the Northeast.
New Hampshire also got an "F" grade from Giffords. And Vermont has a "C-." But other Northeast states are held up as models of gun control by safety advocates.
Connecticut, the site of the Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting in 2012, received an "A-" grade, as did Massachusetts. Rhode Island earned a "B+," according to the nonprofit. California and New Jersey were the only states to get "A" grades.
Fifteen states — most along the East and West coasts — received a "B-" or better.
Not surprisingly, Maine and the other states that get failing grades from groups such as the Giffords Law Center generally get positive ratings from groups such as the National Rifle Association that advocate for fewer restrictions on gun access.
Cam Shannon, board chair of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said the Lewiston tragedy highlights the need to strengthen the state's gun control laws.
"It matters so much what we do next," Shannon said. "Our lives hang in the balance. I don't understand how you can live in this state and not be changed by what happened. I certainly feel the urgency."
Robert Card, a 40-year-old from Bowdoin, killed 18 people Oct. 25 at a bowling alley and a tavern in Lewiston. His body was found Oct. 27 in a storage trailer. Lewiston and surrounding areas were locked down while police searched for Card, before learning he had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
As families hold funerals for those killed, members of the Legislature are preparing to reconvene in January. Gov. Janet Mills, who has in the past opposed strong gun control laws, has said she will be hosting a "comprehensive" discussion among lawmakers and others to discuss potential solutions, but has not yet committed to any specific law changes.
One question certain to be debated is whether to replace Maine's "yellow flag" law with a "red flag" law. Both are designed to temporarily remove guns from people who are undergoing a mental health crisis and may be a danger to themselves or others, but Maine's version has additional legal requirements before someone loses access to guns.
More than 20 states have red flag laws, which earns them higher grades from national gun safety groups such as Giffords Law Center. Maine's "yellow flag" law, which has come under scrutiny about whether it should have been used to take away Card's guns, is considered so weak by gun safety advocates that it is not counted in the state's favor when calculating the strength of gun safety laws, according to Giffords representatives.
"It's very cumbersome," said Lindsay Nichols, policy director for Giffords, of the Maine law. "There are so many hurdles that have to be overcome to reduce a person's access to guns, that it's very unlikely when a dangerous person is identified (under Maine's yellow flag law), that they won't have access to their guns."
In addition to the lack of a "red flag" law, Giffords listed eight areas where Maine could pass laws that would help reduce gun violence: Universal background checks, gun owner licensing, restrictions on access to guns in domestic violence cases, assault weapons bans or restrictions, a ban on high capacity magazines, waiting periods, concealed carry permits and regulations on open carry.
MAINE GUN DEATHS HIGHEST IN NEW ENGLAND
Maine's gun death rate — which includes suicide by gun — is the highest in New England, with 12.6 gun deaths per 100,000 population, although still better than the national average. While Maine's gun homicide rate had been relatively low, the state has an especially high rate of gun suicides.
The median state — Idaho — had a gun death rate of 16.3 per 100,000. Massachusetts has the lowest gun death rate of 3.4 per 100,000 population. The gun death rates are based on 2021 statistics.
Nichols said there's a clear correlation between states with the strictest gun laws and gun deaths.
"We see this year after year, that states with the strongest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death, and states with the weakest gun laws have the highest rates of gun death per capita," Nichols said.
Massachusetts — with the lowest rate of gun deaths in the nation — has many laws on the books that aim to minimize gun deaths. A partial list includes a ban on high-capacity magazines, a red flag law, universal background checks, and restrictions on gun access in domestic violence cases.
Shannon Frattaroli, professor with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the various laws work together to reduce the number of gun deaths by reducing access to weapons.
"If you make things more difficult, fewer people are going to do it," Frattaroli said. "There are certainly people who plot their crimes, but there are many examples where people don't. When someone becomes mad and decides they're going to go after someone, they turn and look around, and if there's a knife, they'll use a knife, if there's a gun then that's what they're going to use."
CHANGING GUN LAWS DIFFICULT IN MAINE
But how likely is it that Maine would actually change its gun laws, even after a tragedy where 18 people were killed?
Jacob Posik, legislative affairs director for the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, said he believes it would be difficult to pass new gun laws in Maine because they could run counter to the Maine Constitution, which has strong language in favor of gun rights.
"Instead of new laws, what we should be considering instead is why the laws we have in place didn't work?" Posik said. "What happened in Lewiston is terrible, but the reality is it was preventable."
James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine Farmington, said passing major new gun control laws would be difficult. He believes it's more likely that Maine would enact modest changes compared to the sweeping reforms passed in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook elementary school tragedy.
"It's not just a matter of convincing rural Republicans. It's a matter of convincing rural Democrats. You would need to sell rural Maine on these changes," said Melcher, adding that Gov. Mills has traditionally been "cautious" on gun issues.
But Melcher said U.S. Rep. Jaren Golden, D-2nd District, reversing his stance on guns could impact how lawmakers view the upcoming debate on guns. The day after the shootings in his hometown, Golden announced in an emotional news conference that he was changing his views on gun laws, and now favors an assault weapons ban. Maine's 2nd District is far more conservative than the 1st District, and its voters are more likely to support gun rights.
State Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, a member of the Maine Legislature's gun safety coalition, said she appreciates that Golden was open to changing his views, and hopes state lawmakers who were previously reluctant to pass gun safety laws will get on board.
"I'm hopeful and optimistic we can pass sensible gun safety laws," Gramlich said. "We learned that Maine is not immune from mass shootings. It was unfortunately not a matter of if this would happen, but a matter of when it would happen, and sadly now here we are."