Maine Is Missing Opportunities to Stop Gun Violence, Experts Say

The investigation into a mass shooting that left at least 18 people dead at a bar and a bowling alley in Lewiston, Maine on Wednesday evening continues to unfold, but advocates and experts say the attack has already highlighted Maine’s legal laxity on gun safety.

Specifically, Maine doesn’t have some measures that have been shown to reduce gun deaths among adults, such background checks for handgun sales or laws that require gun permits— which in his own research found was associated with a 60% reduced risk of mass shootings.

Michael Rocque, a professor who has studied gun laws at Bates University in Lewiston, Maine—which was on lockdown at the time of Rocque’s interview with TIME— said that he is already worried the shooting could quickly be forgotten without taking measures to prevent more gun deaths. “We have tools at our disposal that maybe won’t stop all crime from happening, but potentially could prevent one tragedy. Isn’t that worth it, if we can do it without infringing on people’s rights?” said Rocque.

In recent years, efforts to enact gun safety measures have floundered in the state. In June, the state Senate rejected a bill that would have required background checks for private gun sales, including at gun shows, and instead passed a law prohibiting people from buying guns for someone banned from owning them. And while other states have embraced red flag laws, Maine currently only has what has been called a “yellow flag law,” which requires getting a medical professional’s opinion, in addition to a court order, to confiscate someone's firearm temporarily; and up until recently, the law wasn’t being strongly enforced, the Portland Press Herald reported,

As Monisha Henley, senior vice president of government affairs at gun safety activist group Everytown, put it, “Gun laws really do save lives, and Maine doesn’t have that many.”

In Rocque’s view, Maine has been slow to enact gun control, in part, because residents tend to see the state as safe. In 2021, Maine had a gun death rate of 12.6 per 100,000, below the national average, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Many people in Maine—Rocque included—are also hunters, and Mainers often see themselves as “blue collar people who handle their own business,” he says. Many residents are also gun owners: from 2007 to 2016, about 45% of adults in the state were gun owners, compared to a national average of 32% in 2016, according to research from the RAND Corporation.

However, Rocque argues that he’s optimistic that Maine residents will find common ground after the shooting, and people can work to prevent violence before it happens. In particular, he says, Maine’s yellow flag law has received bipartisan support, and could be an important tool going forward to prevent future tragedies if law enforcement continues to be willing to enforce them.  Mass shootings “rarely happen out of the blue,” he says, noting that shooters often make threats or share their plans with others.

Rosanna Smart, co-director of RAND’s Gun Policy in America initiative—which analyzes the effectiveness of gun safety measures— says that while there’s limited evidence showing which laws prevent mass shootings specifically, given that they’re relatively rare—bans on high-capacity magazines appear to reduce the number of deaths in mass shootings. Beyond mass shootings, there’s also evidence that some policies are associated with a lower rate of gun homicides overall, says Smart, including background checks and permits for buying guns.

Maine could also consider enacting laws that could not only prevent homicides, but prevent gun deaths by suicide, says Smart. Despite the relatively low rate of violent crime in the state, the state has a high rate of suicide gun deaths, at a rate of 9.2 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 6.9 per 100,000 nationwide. In particular, she says, requiring a waiting period before buying guns seem to reduce suicide deaths. “If the goal is to reduce firearm deaths, a focus on firearm suicides is certainly needed alongside any focus on interpersonal forms of firearm violence,” she says.

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