A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
Maine has turned into a solidly Democratic state in the era of Gov. Janet Mills. But it has long been different than virtually any other state in the nation of gun laws, one of the biggest and most divisive issues in American politics over the past 25 years.
Over the past decade, gun laws here have been loosened. Under former Gov. Paul LePage in 2015, a divided Legislature allowed carrying concealed weapons without a permit. The next year, voters rejected a background check expansion behind big margins in rural areas.
Mills, who supported gun control measures during her Democratic primary in 2018, has dissuaded her party from passing them since then. But a major shooting last month is bringing the issue back to the forefront. Negotiations are afoot and lawmakers are giving them space.
The context: In April, a man with a violent criminal past that prevented him from having guns was arrested after allegedly killing his parents and their two friends in Bowdoin before shooting and then injuring three people in a car along Interstate 295 in Yarmouth.
It has led to the return of a powerful coalition between Mills and the gun-rights Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. The group’s executive director, David Trahan, said just after the shooting that he was beginning to talk with the administration about gun laws, including a potential crackdown on “straw purchases” in which others buy weapons for people prohibited from having them.
That group has come up with consensus deals before, including the “yellow flag” compromise that replaced a more stringent red-flag bill from Democrats in 2019. Gun control advocates including House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, are pushing for background checks and other measures, but the Mills-alliance pairing looks to be in the driver’s seat on the issue.
A key player: There is no proposal yet. House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said while he has not been involved in talks, he trusted Trahan to negotiate something that would not fall hard on “law-abiding gun owners.”
“He’s pretty good at looking at stuff like that,” Faulkingham said.
Another example: Nuanced debates are coming up in other areas of the law as well. For example, both chambers of the Legislature have already advanced a bill that would assemble a stakeholder group to look at best practices for lockdown and active-shooter drills in schools and let parents opt children out of lockdown drills.
Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, championed it at the urging of parents and the Maine Education Association, with backers citing research showing trauma inflicted on children by these types of drills. Democrats got it through the chambers with Republican opposition, although Sen. James Libby, R-Standish, acknowledged the research in a floor speech this week and said his side wanted more time to examine the issue.
What’s next: There will be plenty of party-line proposals on guns, but look to the middle of the chambers for those that are likely to pass. Any Trahan-Mills proposal should be a key starting point for the issue this year.