Democratic Gov. Janet Mills participates in a gubernatorial debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. Mills is being challenged by Republican Paul LePage and independent Sam Hunkler. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Support for gun control rose earlier this year after a spate of mass shootings. In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills has kept the issue on the back burner.

The Democratic governor supported gun control when she was in a contested 2018 primary, including banning high-capacity magazines and passing a red-flag law. But she warded members of her party off from raising gun control early in her tenure. In a recent Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine questionnaire, she opposed magazine limits and a red-flag law.

Mills’ reversal on key gun issues makes it unlikely that Maine’s relaxed gun laws will change if she is reelected. Voters here rejected a 2016 referendum that would have expanded background checks. The Maine Constitution says gun rights “shall never be questioned.”

Her opposition has led to disappointment among advocates of gun control in Maine, most of whom still plan to vote for her over former Gov. Paul LePage, a more ardent gun-rights supporter endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

Mary Owen, 69, of Augusta, who testified in support of a background checks bill last year that failed, said she had been disappointed by both Mills’ actions and the lack of significance gun control has played in this election, including not being mentioned in debates featuring Mills and LePage. Independent Sam Hunkler, who said in an interview last month that Maine did not need to change its gun laws, also is running in the November race.

“I don’t know what she’s thinking other than the quest for being reelected,” Owen said.

While party identification has increasingly become an indicator of support for gun control, policies have also become increasingly structured around urban versus rural areas, said Kristin Goss, a Duke professor of public policy and expert on gun politics. That phenomenon was shown in Maine six years ago, when the 2nd Congressional District dealt the fatal blow to a referendum looking to expand background checks to private sales.

“In conditions like that, you’re going to see Democrats being a little more cautious about embracing new gun laws,” Goss said.

At a hyper-partisan moment in state and national politics, Mills rejected divisive gun legislation in favor of a more practical, bipartisan approach to gun legislation, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a gun-rights and conservation group.

That came in the form of negotiating a more sweeping red-flag law down into a bipartisan compromise often referred to as a “yellow flag” one. The law allows police and prosecutors to seek a judge’s permission to confiscate weapons from people who pose a danger to themselves or others. Mills also embraced a safe storage push from the alliance.

“That’s her legacy, no matter if she wins or loses, and that should be the legacy of every administration,” Trahan said, praising the governor for meeting groups in the middle.

Advocates are quick to point out Maine’s rural nature, where the nearest police station is sometimes many miles away, as well as low rates of violent crime. Indeed, Maine’s gun homicide rate was second-lowest in the nation from 2015 to 2020, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

But the overall gun death rate was higher — 14th lowest in the country — during that time, and the highest in New England besides Vermont. More than 90 percent of the 896 firearm deaths in that period came by suicides with firearms. Maine’s gun suicide rate was 21st in the country.

Goss said laws narrowly targeted at restricting the most high-risk gun owners, including those who are mentally ill or have a history of violence, tend to receive the most bipartisan support. While there has been an increasing amount of organizing around gun control at the state level, there remain several barriers in rural states with many firearms, she said.

LePage strategist Brent Littlefield said the Republican opposes placing new restrictions on law-abiding gun owners in Maine, saying that criminals would not follow gun laws even if they were enacted. Mills’ office did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did national gun control organizations, including the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Giffords and Everytown. Another one, Brady, declined to comment on the governor’s record.

Even if she has disappointed them, gun-control advocates still see Mills as the obvious choice. Camilla Shannon, chair of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said a third LePage administration could risk reversing measures the state has already passed, including the safe-storage law.

“If you care about gun safety, Paul LePage is far worse than Janet Mills even if her record isn’t what we would want,” Shannon said.