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Susan Young is the Bangor Daily News opinion editor.
Four lives were brutally ended at a home in Bowdoin. Three more people were wounded by gunfire while traveling on a busy stretch of interstate on Tuesday.
But the tragedy of these horrific events didn’t begin this week.
It is likely that a lot of failures led up to this deadly rampage. Failures of laws, systems and, likely, people.
Joseph Eaton has been charged with murder and confessed, police say, to fatally shooting his parents, Cynthia and David Eaton, and two of their friends, Robert C. Eger Jr., and Patricia Deraps Eger.
He is also expected to be charged with the shootings on Interstate 295 that injured three members of the Halsey family. If he is found guilty, Eaton is solely responsible for his actions and must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
Beyond this, there is a lot we don’t know. And there are some things that we know too well.
In a tearful video posted on Facebook on Monday, Eaton spoke about being molested and “dealing with trauma for a long time.” We don’t yet know if this is true, and it’s no excuse for murder if it is. Most victims of such abuse do not commit violent crimes.
But we also know that sex abuse is one of the most underreported crimes, and the victims often don’t get the support they need. And, according to Department of Justice figures, 68 percent of incarcerated male felons reported some form of childhood victimization. Specifically, 14 percent reported sexual abuse.
From his own admissions, Eaton used illegal drugs. Again, most substance users do not commit violent crimes. An estimated 65 percent of U.S. prisoners have substance use disorders, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But we know that when people seek treatment for their addictions, they are often met with long waitlists and overcrowded programs, which are frequently out of their financial reach.
We know that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for many to get needed mental health treatment. And, again we know, those with mental health needs are more often the victims of crimes than the perpetrators. But, untreated mental health issues can compound other stressors and trauma. More than a third of prison and jail inmates have a history of mental illness and nearly two-thirds of prison inmates and nearly half of those held in jail do not receive treatment while incarcerated, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports.
None of this excuses Eaton for the heinous crimes he is accused of committing. Instead, it points to a country cracking under the weight of too many guns and too many holes in the systems meant to help and protect us all.
Eaton was released from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham on April 14. His most recent conviction was for an August 2021 assault on a fellow inmate. With a history of violent crime, why was he sentenced to just eight months?
And, then there is the issue of the guns that Eaton allegedly used. Because of his previous convictions, Eaton was prohibited from having firearms. Yet he allegedly killed four people and shot three more. We don’t yet know how he would have got the guns used in these crimes.
I strongly believe that we need stricter regulations on the sale of guns and ammunition. But, such restrictions might not have stopped Eaton from getting weapons.
When tragedy like this happens, we all grasp for simple answers, simple solutions. But in a country with more than 350 million guns, reducing gun violence is complex and nuanced, with opposing sides dug in.
Maine lawmakers are currently considering three gun safety bills. None of them are extreme. Yet, given Maine’s strong gun lobby and historic aversion to new restrictions, they face dim prospects of passage despite Democratic control of the Legislature and governor’s office. However, I remain hopeful that ongoing negotiations between lawmakers and groups like the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine can lead to modest measures that improve safety.
David Trahan, SAM’s executive director, told me he is working with the House Speaker and governor’s office to develop an extensive package of law changes to improve community safety. As reported by the BDN, these include new penalties for so-called straw purchases, where guns are purchased for those who are prevented from doing so on their own, and improvements to the state’s yellow flag law.
These and other measures that are under discussion won’t end gun violence in Maine, but they could be important steps in filling holes in current laws to reduce it.
We know a lot about what happened on Tuesday, and we’re likely to learn a lot more about failures of laws and people that leave too many lost in this world. But there’s a whole lot more that we don’t know for certain — including how to end endemic gun violence in our current complicated reality.