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As a convicted felon, Joseph Eaton was, by law, prohibited from having firearms and from living in a house with guns. Yet, Eaton has confessed to killing four people — his parents Cynthia and David Eaton, and their friends Patti and Robert Eger — according to police. He is also expected to be charged in a shooting rampage on Interstate 295 in Yarmouth that injured three people.
How, many people are wondering, did Eaton get the guns used in these crimes? He was released from a prison in Windham on April 14, just days before the Eatons and Egers were killed. Eaton was apprehended on the interstate after several cars were hit by gunfire last Tuesday.
Police have said that numerous guns were found at the Bowdoin home of the Egers, where the Eatons were staying.
In 2014, Eaton sought to serve probation at his parents’ Florida home after he was released from detention for an assault in Maine. But his father refused to give up his guns.
While there is still much we don’t know about the details of this case, Eaton’s seemingly easy access to guns points to troubling shortcomings in existing laws and policies.
Lawmakers, advocates and others are discussing ways to fix these shortcomings. Like other efforts to reduce gun violence, all options — including restrictions on gun access, treatment for mental health, and sentencing and prison release procedures — need to be considered.
Although federal law and laws in many states, including Maine, prohibit some people convicted of some felony crimes, notably domestic violence, from possessing firearms, these laws are hard to enforce. Often, someone who is prohibited from having a firearm and has kept one or more anyway is not caught unless they commit another crime.
One proposal being considered in Maine calls for home inspections before a felon who is prohibited from possessing a gun is released from prison. This review has been described as similar to the inspection done before children are placed with a foster family. Guns and other potentially dangerous items are required to be secured.
While this proposal has merit, guns are fairly easy to hide so a search may not be foolproof. Extensive searches also could be time consuming and put those doing the search into confrontational situations.
Someone like Eaton also could purchase a gun through a private sale without going through a background check. It is unknown whether he did so. Still, Maine lawmakers should close this gap in existing law and make federal background checks mandatory for all gun sales, regardless of where they take place.
It is true that Mainers voted on a plan to require background checks for all gun sales and transfers in 2016. The referendum, which the BDN editorial board supported, was rejected by 52 percent of voters. However, 70 percent of Mainers said they favored stronger background checks in polling conducted in 2021 by Giffords, a group that supports stronger gun control in the U.S. In addition, deaths from gun violence have surged nationally since then, and it is clear that more restrictions could help reduce homicides and suicides, which account for most of the firearms deaths in Maine.
LD 168, a bill sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, would require background checks for most private sales, transfers or exchanges of guns.
“While LD 168 will not eradicate gun violence or suicide by firearm, it will decrease the number of deadly weapons being placed in the hands of people with extensive criminal records or serious mental health issues through unchecked private sales or transfers,” Talbot Ross said in testimony before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee earlier this month. She cited recent news reports that three guns used in a mass shooting in Nova Scotia in 2020 were obtained in Maine through private sales and transfers. Twenty-two people were killed in the Canadian province, and an official inquiry was recently completed.
“Licensed dealers are not permitted to make those sales or facilitate those transfers without conducting background checks. LD 168 closes the gaping loophole that exempts private sales and transfers of rearms from a parallel requirement to conduct background checks,” Talbot Ross said in her testimony.
It will likely be a long time before we have all the answers about what went wrong in the Eaton case. But it is clear that lawmakers can, and should, take steps, like passing LD 168, to attempt to keep guns out of the hands of people who, based on existing laws, should not have them.