Peter Fromuth writes that Maine guns laws don't represent the way life should be.
Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Peter Fromuth, an attorney, lives with his family in Yarmouth.

Just over the Piscataqua River Bridge, Maine reassures you that here, at last, is the way life should be. It’s a bold claim. Its bolder still when joined to “Dirigo,” Latin for “I lead,” the boast just beneath the north star on our flag and seal.

Really? Is this the way life should be? Do we lead? Despite years of pleading from gun safety advocates, despite poll after poll showing majorities for safer gun laws, few states have weaker ones than Maine. In Lewiston, reality tragically caught up with us.  

The best time to lead was before 18 Mainers were slain on Oct. 25; the second-best time is now. We know the tools that could better safeguard ourselves: a ban on assault weapons and large magazines, a red flag bill, a universal background check, a waiting period between gun purchase and delivery, and similar measures.

Congress knows them, too. So does each state where each new massacre occurs. Yet after the grim press conferences, the thoughts and prayers, the leaders appearing at community vigils, the most important tool — the one whose absence defeats, because it will always defeat, every vow of prevention — is political will.

It does not have to be this way. Connecticut found the political will after Sandy Hook, Illinois found it after Highland Park, Florida adopted extreme risk protection orders (red flag) after Parkland, and Washington state acted after its own series of school killings.

But most states, and Congress, have done little or nothing. Rather, gun massacres, alone among our public tragedies, seem to call forth a peculiar way of mourning: before the vigils disperse or burials end, gun purchases spike. The guardians of this deadly status quo swiftly deploy familiar bromides: the problem is not dangerous firearms but dangerously deranged people squeezing the triggers.

Actually, medical research shows that those with severe mental illness are responsible for 5 percent — or less — of mass shootings; more psychiatrists can’t protect us from the other 95 percent.

Alternatively, the newly anointed speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives suggests the problem is the “human heart.” Well, maybe, but since mass killings are 12 times more frequent in America than the global average, according to a recent tally, even if we assume American hearts are just more evil, his diagnosis doesn’t point to a cure.

Other measures are more promising: a ban on assault weapons, the military-caliber bullets they use, and the large magazines that hold them would be a valuable start. Ten states ban the import, manufacture and sale of assault weapons; several require registration of those in circulation. A ban is daunting when so many guns are already here, but a small percentage of people own most of them. Currently owned and registered weapons would be lawful, their transfer would not; black market transactions would persist, but growing scarcity would raise the price of new ones. Marketing constraints could reinforce the effect.

Polls show a universal background check would be popular here. Today only licensed firearms dealers do background checks, allowing prohibited persons to evade state and federal restrictions by buying informally. That makes us “open for business” for criminals traveling here to evade required background checks at home.  

Mainers are also enthusiastic about a waiting period between purchase and delivery of a firearm. Our suicide-by-gun rate is the highest in New England and among the highest in the country. Vermont, recently higher than Maine, just acted to lower gun suicides by enacting a waiting period. While the Legislature in Maine rejected a 72-hour waiting period last June, despite the fact that 88 percent of gun deaths are by suicide.

And after Maine’s worst gun killing, few would challenge our need for a simple, swift procedure, such as a red flag law, for judicial confiscation of weapons from persons dangerous to themselves or others.

The last of Lewiston’s victims will soon be laid to rest. For the rest of us, the time to honor them is just beginning. Let us join our voices for gun safety and make Lewiston not just a moment in a litany of unlearned lessons: not a moment but the start of a movement.