May 8, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Gun seller's gut is last defense against tragedy

By Bill Nemitz

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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