AUGUSTA, Maine — The largest gun control group in the country is renewing calls for an assault-style weapons ban and a red flag law in Maine after last week’s shooting in Lewiston.
Everytown for Gun Safety, the national group started by ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with Moms Demand Action, support those measures while state lawmakers debate whether guns, mental health or missed warning signs are more pertinent in the wake of the Oct. 25 mass shooting that killed 18 people and injured 13 others.
Mainers rejected an expanded background check referendum pushed by Everytown in 2016. After Maine’s worst mass shooting, the group wants a red flag law and a ban on assault-style weapons like the one used by the Lewiston gunman. The latter idea has been embraced by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Lewiston, and President Joe Biden.
“This tragedy was able to turn as deadly as it was because of access to an assault weapon, a weapon invented for the battlefield to wreak as much havoc as possible in a matter of seconds,” said Alisa Conroy Morton, the deputy chapter leader of Moms Demand Action in Maine.
Changes may not come easily. Maine has loose gun laws, a strong hunting culture and a Constitution saying the right to bear arms “shall never be questioned” despite the executive and legislative branches being controlled fully by Democrats since the 2018 election.
Gov. Janet Mills expressed support for gun control, such as a red flag law along with bump stock and high-capacity magazine bans, in a contested primary that year. After winning office, she dissuaded lawmakers from bringing forward gun control measures and opposed magazine limits as well as a red flag law in a 2022 Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine questionnaire.
In 2019, Mills and the gun-rights alliance worked together to water down a red flag proposal and instead reach a “yellow flag” compromise in 2019 that has been used more than 80 times since its inception.
Most scrutiny since the Lewiston shooting has revolved around how family of the gunman, 40-year-old Robert Card II of Bowdoin, and a fellow Army reservist warned police earlier this year he was gathering firearms while becoming paranoid and claiming the businesses he ended up targeting were “broadcasting” he was a pedophile. Card was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot Friday in Lisbon after a 48-hour manhunt.
Red flag laws in 21 states allow police and family to petition courts to confiscate dangerous weapons from people deemed dangerous, while Maine’s yellow flag measure requires a medical professional to evaluate and deem the person a threat.
Experts have said the law should have been triggered in Card’s case, though it may not have prevented the shooting. Gun control advocates have argued Maine’s yellow flag law is not strong enough both before and after the Lewiston shootings, while David Trahan, the executive director of the sportsman’s alliance, said the existing law “has undoubtedly saved lives.”
Trahan said during a WVOM radio interview Tuesday the debate should focus on how police did not take action on warnings about Card. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, who sponsored the 2019 yellow flag bill, agreed and said increased access to mental health treatment is needed.
“Where were the mistakes made?” Trahan asked. “How do we enhance the training so that this never happens again?”
Other gun control bills during Mills’ tenure have stalled in the Legislature, including a 2019 measure from then-state Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, to stop the sale of high-capacity magazines that contain more than 10 rounds of ammunition and proposals this year to create 72-hour waiting periods on gun purchases and ban bump stocks.
Several Democratic lawmakers told the Bangor Daily News a ban on assault-style weapons and red flag law should now receive consideration. The Legislative Council, a 10-member panel of top lawmakers, will only approve “emergency” bills for debate in the 2024 session. Its Oct. 26 meeting was postponed due to the shooting.
Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, who voted against this year’s waiting period and background check bills, wants Maine to work with the federal government to create a public online registry of people prohibited from possessing firearms and a system for guns to be surrendered.
“Those are things we could do without major changes to current law,” Baldacci said.
A conservative lawmaker from Lewiston’s twin city of Auburn is more focused on mental health regulations. Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, said she submitted Sunday an emergency bill that would repeal requirements for Maine’s inpatient and outpatient mental health care facilities.
Certain health care providers must obtain state and competitor approval under Certificate of Need rules to make major changes, such as building new facilities or offering new services. Libby, a former practicing nurse, noted these fees can run up to $200,000 and that her bill would tackle a root cause of gun violence.
The Legislature twice previously defeated similar bills from Libby. Research has been mixed on how well Certificate of Need laws in three dozen states hold down costs. Groups such as the American Hospital Association argue the rules protect nonprofits from a glut of for-profit providers.
“What are we worried about? We’re going to have too much mental health care in Maine?” Libby said. “There’s no downside.”