Pop quiz time for gun dealers all over Maine, starting with the Cabela’s megastore in Scarborough:
What do you do when a gun buyer passes the federal instant background check with flying colors but something tells you, deep down in your gut, that this person should be nowhere near a loaded firearm?
A) Hand him his new weapon with a box of ammunition and cheerfully wish him a nice day.
B) Engage him in conversation about what he’s looking for in a handgun.
C) Summon your manager for a second opinion.
D) Tell him this doesn’t feel right and he’ll have to take his business elsewhere.
Time will tell exactly who did what last week when Andrew Leighton walked into Cabela’s in search of a handgun and walked out with a “baby eagle .40 caliber and ammunition,” as described in an affidavit by Maine State Police Detective Christopher Farley.
But this much we already know: One day after Leighton went out and got himself a gun, his 68-year-old mother, Shirley Leighton, picked up the phone to have her son involuntarily committed to Spring Harbor Hospital, a psychiatric treatment facility in Westbrook. By his own admission to police, Leighton then fatally shot her in the back of the head.
Should Leighton, 46, have been in possession of that weapon?
In retrospect, obviously not.
Did Cabela’s, seeing only green lights on his background check, detect anything about him that would give a reasonable person pause?
“Our detectives would go back to Cabela’s and talk about that with them,” said Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, who’s now in the early stages of prosecuting Leighton for murder.
Marchese noted that while Leighton had not been involuntarily committed in the past (a disqualifier for purchasing a firearm), “he did have a mental health history.”
Meaning all was not well when he walked into Cabela’s last week. The question is, did Leighton wear his dysfunction close to his vest or right out there on his sleeve?
And at the same time, how far should Cabela’s and other licensed dealers go to ensure that a customer is, for lack of a better phrase, gun worthy?
Contacted at Cabela’s in Scarborough on Tuesday, a store manager referred all questions to corporate Communications Director Joe Arterburn. Repeated messages to Arterburn went unanswered.
Still, it doesn’t take a corporate spokesman to ascertain that Cabela’s, like any successful retailer, is all about connecting with its customers.
Two years ago, the company hired Sales Training America, a Houston-based consulting firm, to help Cabela’s sales teams bond with whoever walks through the door.
“Sales representatives participating in this hands-on, practice-driven sales training workshop will gain knowledge and experience with essential sales skills such as Active Listening and the use of Clarifying and Confirming questions to help them gain a clear understanding of customers’ needs and goals,” promised a press release announcing the contract. “The sales training workshop will also show sales agents how best to handle various Behavioral and Buyer Types, enhancing their ability to effectively communicate and interact with many different types of customers.”
Including, we can only wonder, those in a psychotic state? How best to “handle” that “Behavioral and Buyer Type”?
“If a dealer has that gut feeling, there’s nothing that says he can’t pause or hesitate. Nothing says he must make the sale that day,” noted Jeff Weinstein, president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, in an interview on Tuesday.
Weinstein said he recalls at least two Maine gun dealers — their names escape him — who have told him they refused to sell a firearm because, despite a clean background check, something about the buyer made them squeamish.
Weinstein calls the gun dealer, large or small, “the last line of defense” in preventing firearms from getting into the wrong hands. Sometimes, a call to the local police chief might answer any nagging questions, he said. Other times, the sale might not go through at all.
“It’s not a must-sell situation. They can refuse,” Weinstein said. “But it would be prudent for a gun shop owner to not make a habit of this. I mean, he’s trying to run a business, too.”
Over in New Hampshire, gun dealers appear to be having no trouble striking that balance. At the urging of the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition, 48 percent of the state’s local gun dealers now post materials alerting people who might be a danger to themselves or others that help is available.
Catherine Barber, director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s “Means Matter” suicide prevention program, is a member of the New Hampshire coalition — founded in 2009 after three customers bought weapons from the same gun shop in the same week and, within hours of each sale, took their own lives. Beyond all the posters and hotline alerts, Barber will long remember one gun dealer who sensed something was amiss with a female customer one day.
Looking the woman straight in the eye, the dealer asked quietly, “Should I really be selling this gun to you today?”
“She started to cry,” recalled Barber. “And it was clear he wasn’t going to go ahead with the sale.”
Maybe someone at Cabela’s asked Andrew Leighton a similar question last week – or maybe not.
But as he now undergoes a court-ordered psychological evaluation to determine whether he’s fit to stand trial for murder — according to his lawyer, Leighton appeared to be “hearing voices” during his initial court appearance on Monday — Cabela’s would do well to revisit those Clarifying and Confirming sales questions right about now.
Starting with, “How do you plan to use this gun?”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org