Sportsman's Alliance of Maine Executive Director David Trahan listens to early reports on Maine's last bear-baiting referendum on Nov. 4, 2014, in Orono. Credit: Michael C. York

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The stark gun violence that has plagued the country came to Maine on Tuesday, when four people were killed in rural Bowdoin before the alleged killer was apprehended 25 miles away along Interstate 295 in Yarmouth, where three more were shot.

Police arrested 34-year-old Joseph M. Eaton, who has a violent criminal history. Both state and federal laws bar him from possessing firearms, something he was already convicted of in Florida. He faced charges only for the Bowdoin killings as of Wednesday morning, but he was captured by police quickly at the Yarmouth scene. The victims have not been identified.

The seven casualties make this shooting the largest one in Maine since at least the 1980s, bringing the national problem of gun violence home. It coincides with negotiations on politically fraught bills on the subject in the State House.

The context: The state sticks out on the national scale with high levels of gun ownership paired with relaxed laws given a strong hunting culture and low levels of gun mortality, although federal data show Maine had the highest rate in New England in 2021.

Despite solid Democratic control of Augusta, the farthest-reaching gun control proposals have been smothered in the State House with Gov. Janet Mills indicating early in her tenure that she did not want to relitigate the state’s 2016 vote against a background check proposal. This was a reversal from Mills’ pro-gun control stance during her 2018 Democratic primary campaign.

Mills has forged a politically powerful legislative partnership with the gun-rights Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, turning a so-called red flag bill into a 2019 “yellow flag” compromise and beginning a school safety center in the Maine Department of Education.

This year’s bills: Progressive Democrats are back this year with many of the perennial proposals often tried in Augusta. One from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland would mandate background checks on firearms purchased at gun shows or in private sales, similar to the referendum from seven years ago.

That measure and others drew passionate testimony from both sides of the divide in gun-rights politics. Trahan, whose group generally lines up with the more strident National Rifle Association on those issues, is meeting Wednesday with Talbot Ross and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck to try to find some consensus on the issue.

That could include new limits on straw purchases of firearms on behalf of people like Eaton who should not have them, as well as an emphasis on mental health counseling by telemedicine to reach rural Maine communities and further training for police in using the yellow flag law, Trahan said. The meeting was called before the shootings.

“There’ll be a debate on more controversial gun bills later, but I think we ought to be working together right now,” Trahan said.

What’s next: Lines like that, as well as Mills’ historic posture on the issues, are going to disappoint gun control activists, who echo Talbot Ross’ testimony at this month’s hearing that Maine’s current laws make the state vulnerable to being a source for guns used in crimes.

The Mills-led alliance has been the dominant one on the topic so far, but those on both sides of it will be watching this case closely to explore how the alleged killer got his gun.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...