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Maine's gun laws under scrutiny in wake of Lewiston shootings

Law enforcement officers hold rifles while investigating a scene, in Bowdoin, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Residents have been ordered to shelter in place as police continue to search for the suspect of Wednesday's mass shootings.
Steven Senne
Law enforcement officers hold rifles while investigating a scene, in Bowdoin, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Residents have been ordered to shelter in place as police continue to search for the suspect of Wednesday's mass shootings.

In the wake of Wednesday's shootings in Lewiston, several gun control groups are renewing the call for stricter firearm laws at both the state and national level.

Earlier this year, in the wake of an mass shooting in Bowdoin, the state legislature passed a bipartisan measure increasing penalties on "straw purchases" - in which someone buys a firearm for another person who is prohibited from owning one.

But Lynn Ellis, the legislative director for the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said Maine lawmakers failed to pass several other measures that would have patched major holes in the state's gun control laws. They include a bill that would close a loophole on background checks, and another that would require a 72-hour waiting period between the purchase and sale of a firearm.

"Just this last session, we have said more than once, when we were trying to pass common sense drills, that isn't a question of if — it's a question of when this tragedy happens in Maine. And, and to just have it happen, there's no solace in that, that we said that," Ellis said. "It's, it's just the reality that we, we knew could happen, because we're not immune, here in Maine, because access to firearms is a real issue."

According to the group Everytown for Gun Safety, Maine is ranked 25th in the country for its laws around gun safety.

While Maine has a relatively low rate of gun deaths, and is considered one of the safest states in the country, the group says its gun laws are lacking.

"I'll just be blunt. Maine has weak gun laws compared to other states. And we think that lawmakers have rejected efforts to make them stronger, for far too long," said Matt McTighe of York, and Everytown's Chief Operating Officer.

McTighe specifically highlights Maine's 'yellow flag' law, passed by the legislature three years ago.

Unlike More stringent 'red flag' laws that allow law enforcement or a family member to petition a judge to temporarily restrict someone's access to guns, Maine's measure only allows law enforcement to take that step.

It also requires a medical assessment before the petition reaches the judge.

And while its not clear whether suspect Robert Card's mental health status would have triggered a state law, McTighe said Maine's requirements are too onerous and can add days or weeks to the process of removing someone's access to firearms.

"And so, you know, people aren't able to actually trigger these laws the way that they are in 21 states that actually have passed strong red flag laws, which actually allow family using law enforcement to act when they see somebody who like this suspect here in Lewiston, exhibit troubling signs that they may pose a danger to themselves and others," McTighe said.

Maine Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck was unable to provide much detail on Thursday, when asked how Card was able to come into possession of a weapon.

"Well I do think that the statutes around firearms, and the possession of those, are pretty complex. I know that we will be reviewing that information as we move forward. But that is not an answer that we're prepared to give today. You're talking about behavioral health issues and how that impacts the situation," Sauschuck said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills says that the current focus is on law enforcement's "efforts to capture the suspect" and understand the circumstances involved in the tragedy. The spokesperson said Mills "believes the people of Maine deserve a robust discussion about public safety at the State and Federal levels in the coming weeks.”

A spokesperson for the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine did not respond to a request for comment.

According to a database maintained by USA Today and the Associated Press, Wednesday's shooting was the 36th mass killing in the United States this year. In total, those incidents have killed at least 190 people.

President Biden on Wednesday said the tragedy underscores the need for more national action to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, enact universal background checks, and require safe storage of guns.

But with Republicans in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, that appears unlikely for the foreseeable future.

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