BANGOR, Maine — While Maine’s overall murder rate is relatively low, the state has the dubious distinction of having among the highest knife killing rates in the country, according to federal statistics.

In 2010, Maine ranked first in the country in its percentage of killings with knives, numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show. That year, 28.6 percent of the state’s homicide were by knives; 43 percent involved guns.

In 2009, Maine was fifth in the nation in knife killings.

“It’s harder to get a gun,” Brewer Police Lt. Christopher Martin said Friday when asked about why knife-related crime is so prevalent in Maine.

“Guns cost more than knives. You’ve got to know how to use a gun, how to clean it and how to maintain it. If you’re buying a new gun, you have to pass a background check,” Martin said.

Martin, who says he has carried a pocket knife since he was a boy in Aroostook County, said the vast majority of Mainers who carry knives do so for legitimate, practical reasons, such as fishing, hunting or yard work.

Martin said Brewer police have been finding increasing numbers of knives among drug users — including a man being investigated for trafficking in synthetic hallucinogens who had a knife hidden in his back brace and a bath salts user who was carrying, among other things, a samurai sword.

“The people that are carrying knives [are] not the story. It’s a question about the life paths they have chosen,” he said.

According to statistics maintained by the Maine Department of Public Safety as part of its Uniform Crime Reporting requirements, there have been a total of 262 homicides and non-negligent manslaughters since 2000 as of this week, 45 of which involved knives or other sharp instruments. That translates to about one in every five killings over that period.

The numbers also show that since 2000, Maine saw only one year — 2007 — pass without a knife-related death.

The highest number, seven, occurred in 2008.

The 45 victims ranged from 10 to 81 years old and the vast majority were at least acquainted with their attackers, who with only four exceptions were male.

The circumstances behind the killings varied from domestic violence and drug-related incidents to street fights and reasons that remain unknown, the statewide data show.

While Maine’s yearly totals for knife killings — and all killings for that matter — fall far below those of more heavily populated states, they are high in terms of the percentage they constitute compared to other means of killing, including firearms, blunt objects, vehicles and hands, fists or feet.

In 2010, the most recent year for which data on knife killings are available from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 28.6 percent of all homicides in Maine were committed with a knife. The national average that year was 14.6 percent.

Though the number of knife-related killings in Maine has remained flat, Bangor has been the site of two of the three that have occurred so far this year.

The first stabbing death of 2012 happened in Bangor on Feb. 22, when Gail Judd, 53, stabbed 47-year-old Michael Drouin of Bangor in her Court Street apartment, according to police.

Judd, who was indicted in March by the Penobscot County grand jury for intentional or knowing murder, reportedly told neighbors she stabbed Drouin in self-defense and pleaded not guilty in April.

The second stabbing death happened in the wee hours of May 22, when Jason Trickett, a 41-year-old transient, allegedly stabbed 38-year-old Andy Smith during a street brawl on First Street. Trickett was indicted last month for manslaughter and is being held in jail on bail set at $50,000 cash.

The most brutal recent knife killings in Maine were the 2010 stabbings of Jeffrey Ryan, 55, Ryan’s son Jesse, 10, and Ryan family friend Jason Dehahn, 30, all of Amity, on June 22, 2010, in the Ryans’ home. Thayne Ormsby, 22, is now serving three life sentences for the killings.

Knife laws

During an interview this week in the Bangor Police Department’s evidence room, Sgt. Paul Edwards highlighted the confusion regarding state laws pertaining to knives. He also displayed four illegal knives taken off the streets in recent months.

Maine’s knife laws are addressed in two different sections of the state’s criminal code, leading to confusion about what’s legal and what’s not.

It isn’t clear-cut.

In April, Bangor police arrested a 20-year-old local man on concealed weapon and other charges after being called to a disturbance on High Street and found him in possession of a knife in a sheath attached to his belt, which according to state law could be considered legal.

In June, a Belfast woman racked up concealed weapon and bail violation charges after Bangor police were called to look into a suspicious vehicle parked at a vacant house and found her with a beer in the center console of her vehicle and knife in a sheath in her purse during a search.

The weapon charge was not her first. In November 2009, she was charged with assault, carrying a concealed weapon and felony unlawful possession of cocaine after she was involved in a fight at a Hammond Street gathering and arrested after refusing to calm down. She was charged with the concealed weapon violation because she had a knife hidden in her pants, which is not legal.

Also confusing because it’s so new is a year-old exception to the state’s dangerous knives law allowing people with one arm to possess and carry switchblades, provided the blades are no longer than 3 inches.

Maine lawmakers amended state law to allow that last spring, after hearing the plight of a Mexico man who lost an arm in an electrical accident as a teenager.

According to Edwards, it is legal to carry knives used in fishing, hunting and trapping. However, it is not legal to possess or distribute dangerous knives, defined as knives that open automatically by hand pressure applied by a button, spring or other mechanism, such as switchblades.

“You could have a buck knife or a folding knife or a fishing knife, all right, but you can’t have these types of quick-eject, a-little-bit-of gravity or spring-loaded knives,” he said. “Things can happen too quickly with those, so that’s kind of the basis of [the law prohibiting them],” he said.

And, if a knife is concealed, “it gets to be an officer discretion [situation] whether or not they think it’s a dangerous weapon and falls under [the state’s concealed weapons statute],” Edwards said.

Buying knives

Illegal knives aren’t hard to come by. The Internet shopping site eBay alone had more than 6,000 listings for spring-assisted knives on Thursday.

With access that easy, Bangor police come across illegal knives “a lot,” Edwards said.

He said the use of illegal knives in homicides here is “very rare,” adding that in most cases, “kitchen-type” knives are used.

“I see a lot of trafficking in dangerous knives charges, though. The policemen in this department, they charge everybody with these. I’m telling you right now that if you’re in Bangor carrying this stuff around, you’re going to get charged with it.”

Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy said Thursday that his office takes knife charges seriously.

“Whenever the police bring us a case and there’s enough evidence, we prosecute,” Almy said, adding that concealed weapon violations and threatening display of or carrying concealed weapon violations are both Class D misdemeanors. The typical fine for either is $200.

Lethality of knives underestimated

Legal or not, carrying knives can spell trouble when conflicts arise between people or among groups of people.

Edwards said that whether a knife is the legal or contraband kind, “there’s still that spontaneous reaction to something that they … thought they had to be involved in and then used that weapon and now could go to jail for the rest of their lives because of that, based on that decision.

“And maybe, too, people don’t realize how deadly that can be,” said Edwards. “They think maybe it will just stick in a little bit or hit a bone or [won’t] go through far enough to hurt somebody.

“But your organs are so close and so tightly packed in there that you’re going to hit something. Once people break the skin and get by that wall, [the blade] is going to hit some sort of major organ. Once that organ is hit or is compromised, that’s when death can occur — and it has — because of that.”