’Tis the season to be terrified.

Over the past week, two events in Maine – one planned, the other anything but – demonstrated once again the insanity surrounding America’s fixation with firearms.

On Monday evening at the First Parish Church in Portland, some 40 people, most of them with gray hair and memories of a more peaceful time, gathered to commemorate the 20 young students and six adults massacred seven years ago Dec. 14 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

It was a somber affair, put on by the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, Mom’s Demand Action for Gun Sense in Maine, Remembering Darien and Suit Up Maine – all working for tighter gun laws here and beyond. There were short speeches, music by the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus, a candlelight vigil – those all-too-familiar trappings we hang on our grief whenever gun violence invades our schools, our malls, our homes …

Geoff Bickford, the coalition’s executive director, wasted no time lamenting that “many of our elected officials are cowards.” They’re too afraid of the National Rifle Association and its gun lobby, he said, to acknowledge what poll after poll shows: Americans, by growing majorities, want universal background checks, smaller ammunition magazines and other common-sense reforms to at least blunt the ever-escalating carnage – if not eliminate it altogether.

Judi Richardson, whose 25-year-old daughter, Darien, died 10 years ago next month after being shot in her Portland apartment, spoke of how the murder weapon was found months later at the scene of another shooting. Yet almost a decade later, Richardson noted, whoever shot Darien still “is getting away with murder.”

Why? Because the .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun, while matching the ballistic markings of the bullet that killed Darien, passed from owner to owner in private transfers that required “no background check, no name for the buyer, no paperwork that traced the sale,” Richardson said, pausing at times to compose herself.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t feel her absence in the world and the empty place where she should be,” Richardson said.

In one of the evening’s more bittersweet moments, the audience loudly applauded Bickford’s announcement that the new spending bill approved by Congress earlier on Monday contains an unprecedented $25 million for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence. Think about that: Close to 40,000 people a year die from firearms in this country, and we’re cheering the fact that the federal government, at long last, is going to study the matter.

It is, Bickford later conceded, one of those “small victories” amid the mass murders and other armed mayhem that punctuate virtually every daily news cycle.

Which brings us to the second event.

It played out last week in the northernmost reaches of Aroostook County, starting with a Snapchat post of a masked teenage girl that referenced certain newcomers in the area and included the words “cult” and “killing spree.”

Police immediately looked into the posting and found no public safety threat. Late Thursday, Benjamin Sirois, superintendent of the three-district Valley Unified Education Service Center, notified parents of the incident via email and assured them that, contrary to what they might have heard, it was safe to send their kids to school.

Didn’t matter. After the original post was picked up and spread once again via social media – complete with new, unfounded rumors of an imminent attack – a wave of fear swept overnight through the St. John Valley.

“We were at a basketball game in Fort Kent (Thursday evening), and you could see people just automatically picking up their phones,” Sirois said in an interview Wednesday. “This social media scare was just spreading before our very eyes.”

Friday’s attendance reports tell the rest of the story. According to the Bangor Daily News, 192 kids, out of 380, stayed home from Community High School/Valley Rivers Middle School in Fort Kent. Almost 40 percent of the students at Fort Kent Elementary School were absent, as were 45 of the 136 youngsters at Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville.

Overreactive parents? Easy to say in hindsight. Still, what would you have done with the school bus pulling up, your kids chomping at the bit and your cellphone lighting up like a Christmas tree? Cross your fingers and hope for the best?

Bickford, of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, has two young children of his own. Parenthood, he said, “has completely changed how I view everything in the world.”

“Every one of those parents has watched CNN and has watched as these school shootings unfold every week (with) the helicopter coverage overhead and the kids running with their hands on their heads,” Bickford said. “Or they’ve seen the accounts of what it was like for the Sandy Hook parents who had to wait in the fire station all day – and they knew what that meant. You can’t fault them at all. When it comes to your children’s safety, you can’t possibly be too safe or protective.”

Or, alas, too frustrated.

During Monday’s vigil in Portland, Bickford provided an update of sorts on state legislation his coalition had hoped to see carried over from the last session into the one that starts in January.

All but one of the bills failed to pass muster with legislative leaders who decide what gets in and what doesn’t. Things like a state ban on bump stocks, straw purchases that allow someone to buy a gun on behalf someone else who can’t, even “An Act To Protect Children by Requiring the Safe Storage of Loaded Firearms,” all will have to wait for another day.

The one bill that might still at least come before the full Legislature? Turning Maine’s prohibition on guns and ammunition at licensed nursery schools and child-care centers, currently a regulatory matter, into a formal state law. That’s it.

Meanwhile, we gather for vigils to remember those lost, year after year, in flashes of blind terror.

And at the mere hint of more tragedy, we gather our children and grandchildren close and pray that trouble will pass us by. Even as we know that sooner or later, one of those cable news nightmares could descend in a heartbeat on our community, our neighborhood, our family.

Here’s to the holidays. God help us, every one.


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