To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
In 2020, almost 20,000 Americans died in gun homicides. But none were in the Portland metro area.
The U.S. has seen several high-profile gun violence events in the past week and could see more in the coming months, when warm temperatures typically coincide with increased violence . Yet, the nearly half a million people in the Portland metro area continue to see some of the lowest rates of gun homicides in the Northeast.
Dozens still die from guns in the Portland area every year due to other causes, including suicides and accidental shootings. More people kill themselves with firearms per capita in the Portland metro area than in several other large population centers in the Northeast, including Boston.
From 2010 to 2020, Cumberland County saw 21 gun homicides, at a rate of around 0.7 gun homicides per 100,000 people, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. By comparison Suffolk County in Massachusetts, where Boston is located, saw 5.2 homicides per 100,000 people during that time. Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, saw a rate of 21.5 per 100,000 people.
Cumberland County’s rate is also lower than several other urban counties in the Northeast. Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh; Buffalo; Springfield, Massachusetts; New Haven; Hartford, Connecticut; New York City; Jersey City, Bridgeport; Providence; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Worcester, Massachusetts, all are in counties with higher gun homicide rates. One notable exception was the county containing Burlington, Vermont, which had a slightly lower rate.
The data are especially surprising given that Maine has some of the weakest gun laws in the region, including the ability for private dealers to sell firearms without performing a background check on the buyer.
Yet, Maine also is a state with a low rate of violent crime. FBI data show that violent crime in Maine is also four times less likely to involve a firearm than elsewhere in the U.S.
That lower level of gun homicides in Portland is likely because the city lacks the decaying institutions, lack of jobs and concentrations of poverty that have been shown to result in increased gun homicides in other metro areas, said Geoff Bickford, director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, which seeks to prevent gun violence in Maine.
“It’s just a much smaller place with much smaller concentrations of poverty,” Bickford said.
He said that gentrification of Portland had also pushed out much of the “core poverty” in the city, though he noted that there continue to be impoverished sections of Portland.
But that doesn’t mean Maine doesn’t have a significant gun problem, Bickford said. The state still sees scores of gun suicides and accidental gun deaths, with its rate of total gun deaths ranking among the highest in the Northeast.
Its total firearm death rate, including homicides, suicides and accidents, is the second-highest in New England, second only to Vermont. While nobody in the Portland metro area (Cumberland, Sagadahoc and York counties) died from a gun homicide in 2020, 38 people still lost their lives to guns.
Maine’s high suicide rate is due to many factors, including the state containing many veterans — a group that is at a heightened risk of suicide — and the significant number of guns in the state, Bickford said.
Roughly half of Maine households have firearms, he said, making them easily accessible for someone at risk of suicide. And people attempting suicide with guns are more likely to succeed than with other methods.
“Other methods, there’s a chance for intervention: you can stop the bleeding, get some help, use an anti-poison agent or stomach pump,” Bickford said.
With gun violence on the rise in many American cities, there remains the possibility that it could eventually rise in Portland. Many gun violence experts fear that homemade guns, which are becoming more readily available, could lead to new violence that is less traceable. Most of those firearms don’t have serial numbers.
Portland police encountered a man with a homemade gun with a suppressor using parts from Polymer80, the country’s largest manufacturer of homemade gun kits, in February.
The department didn’t release information about that encounter, including whether that man committed a crime. However, the department removed the post about the incident less than an hour after it was posted on Facebook after heavy backlash.
It was a sign of how strong opposition to firearm measures can be even in a place not traditionally associated with gun rights like Portland, Bickford said. Firearm use is more commonly tied to the state’s rural communities, many of which have even labeled themselves Second Amendment Sanctuaries in opposition to potential new gun laws.
Still, it is the state’s rural areas that have seen the highest rates of gun homicides. From 1999 to 2020, Piscataquis, Somerset and Oxford counties saw the most per capita.
Of the 2,696 gun deaths in Maine from 1999 to 2020, almost 90 percent (2,395) were suicides and 10 percent (258) were homicides, according to U.S. CDC data. More than 750 people in the Portland metro area committed suicide with a gun during that time, while 79 were homicide victims.
Gun rights organization Gun Owners of Maine did not respond with a comment for this story.