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Geoff Gratwick is a retired rheumatologist and past member of the state Senate from Bangor.
The reality of the horrendous killings in Bowdoin and the shootings on Interstate 295 occurred 10 days after recent hearings in Augusta on three reasonable gun safety bills. The testimony in opposition to these bills was almost all about legalisms, the interpretation of amendments, equivocal data and parsing words. Almost no one spoke about values and morality, the right to live without fear of random gun violence. And now we have four dead Mainers.
How is it that we spend time talking about interpretations of the Second and 14th amendments and not about terrified school kids who have to practice “active shooter” drills? That we do not do everything possible to protect emotionally scarred veterans from suicidal guns? That we do not have a “red flag” law that allows law enforcement to remove guns from the homes of domestic abusers?
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The three bills were very limited. LD 22 seeks to make state law agree with federal law on the sale and transfer of firearms; LD 60 would impose a 72-hour waiting period before the purchase of a firearm; and LD 168 would require criminal background checks for most private sales and exchanges of guns.
Each bill has carefully worded caveats and exceptions. None would take away guns from law-abiding Mainers. None would fully prevent further horror. But all were small steps that might save one life.
The opponents of the proposed bills showed no concern about our current plague of carnage. They were essentially whistling as they walked by the graveyard, using hackneyed tropes and offering no new perspectives or alternatives. Their messages were scripted from a well-rehearsed playbook.
One opponent stated that a 72-hour waiting period would “seriously inconvenience” law-abiding Mainers. If legislation saved only one life, in what universe would this not balance the “serious inconvenience” of a gun shopper?
When I was a physician-in-training in a Harlem hospital emergency room, I was on call one hot summer evening when ambulances brought in three cops. They had been shot at short range with large-caliber weapons. One was missing half his skull and his brains were everywhere — on his clothing, the stretcher and me.
Forgotten by opponents is the reality that gun violence begets the unspeakable. For the victim, there is nothing. And for the survivors, there is a hollow space that admits no words, a void, lives forever divided into the time before and the time after. Tears that can never hide the inner darkness.
Even those of us who do not have to arrange funerals are affected by gun violence’s moral injury. Moral injury is the anger, guilt and sense of betrayal that we individually experience when we are confronted with actions that betray our values and moral conscience.
For a soldier in battle, it is the consequence of a command or his own action in extreme situations that violate his values. For health care workers during the COVID pandemic, it was triggered by having to deliver suboptimal care because of a lack of resources or exhaustion. For those of us witnessing gun violence, it is anger and frustration at those who have the power to improve our laws but do not — as well as at ourselves for not making our voices heard.
The framers of our Constitution and its amendments were rightly concerned about protecting their newly won freedom from musket-bearing soldiers of an autocratic monarch. They reasoned that similar muskets in the hands of a well-armed militia were a practical response. But that day has passed.
Today those who fear autocracy and arm themselves with guns would be hard pressed to prevail in the face of Abrams tanks, helicopter gunships and aircraft carriers. Viewed in this way the concept underlying the Second Amendment is an historical oddity. Today the most immediate personal threat to our life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not the government but rather the lone shooter.
When I wrote the first draft of this column, Maine had the reputation of being a safe state in which to live. I wrote that at some point the sad reality was that we too would likely have a mass shooting by a deranged killer. We must now live with this horrible reality. Lives were obliterated. We will mourn.
We will wonder what we could have done. Perhaps there was nothing we could have done, but now there is something we can do as 70 percent of Mainers favor reasonable gun safety regulations. These three bills are small steps on the path to that “something,” a way in which we affirm our American commitment to a sane world.
Over the next several weeks, the committee and the full Legislature will deliberate further. I hope that our Legislature will pass and the governor will sign these three bills.