Mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, have reignited America’s gun control debate.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives quickly passed a slate of gun control measures last week, while groups of senators are huddling to negotiate alternative reforms. Some states also have responded by enacting or proposing additional restrictions. And activists rallied across the country Saturday to demand reforms to keep schoolchildren and other victims safe.

But don’t expect gun rights to become a prominent political issue in Maine, especially in an election year. The state has a high rate of gun ownership, driven primarily by hunters, and past efforts to restrict firearms have backfired politically, only motivating opponents of gun control to turn out to vote.

Maine’s aversion to gun restrictions can be traced, in part, to the state’s constitution, which says the right to bear arms “shall never be questioned.” Another key factor is Maine’s rural nature, which not only provides ample opportunity for people to hunt, but also makes people more inclined to purchase firearms for self-protection given that many small towns don’t have their own police force, said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Protesters gather at City Hall during the March for Our Lives protest against gun violence in Portland on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“(Maine) is one of the highest gun ownership states in terms of rates east of the Mississippi and it’s generally been fairly resistant to add much in the way of gun control,” Melcher said. “Obviously, a lot of hunters and a lot of rural  people want to have guns because the police department isn’t two blocks away.”

When gun control does come up as a state-level political issue, it’s usually because of an out-of-state group, Melcher said. That was the case in 2016 when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Everytown for Gun Safety, bankrolled a statewide referendum for universal background checks. It was defeated at the polls by 52 percent of the vote.


Gun rights also is not likely to become a significant issue in the November election, partly because no one in the race has been an advocate for restrictions.

And the debate is not expected to become an issue at the local level in Maine, either, for one simple reason: State law prohibits towns and cities from enacting their own gun laws – something that has prevented communities like Portland from being able to ban firearms in public meetings and municipal buildings.

But Geoff Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, believes the political tide is turning toward support for gun control, even in Maine. The state’s elected officials are just not keeping pace, he said.

“I think the ground has shifted in the public and the perception of the Maine political world is very disconnected from the reality on the ground,” Bickford said. “Things that are lifesaving and common sense and don’t affect anyone’s Second Amendment rights in any way have huge support among the public.”

Polling has shown that a majority of Mainers supported expanding background checks for gun sales between strangers. Bickford said he doesn’t consider the 2016 referendum the last word on the issue, because it was poorly worded to include gun transfers from parents to their children and between family and friends, rather than focusing on background checks for sales at gun shows and classified ads.

Bickford said that the current Legislature organized a Gun Safety Caucus, which had over 50 members from the House and Senate representing communities across the state. The group, with the help of stronger community organizing for legislative hearings, is looking to build off of last session’s successes of passing less ambitious laws requiring annual state reports on gun violence and safe storage of firearms.


While leaders are not likely to take up major reforms at the state or local levels here, Maine politicians and advocates on both sides are involved in the national debate.

The Maine Gun Safety Coalition and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which advocates for hunters and defends gun rights, are both working with Maine’s congressional delegation on a national gun safety package.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, voted in favor of a sweeping gun reform package passed by the House last week, along with nearly all other Democrats and a handful of Republican members. But Rep. Jared Golden, who represents Maine’s more conservative 2nd District, was one of two House Democrats who opposed the bill. Golden released a written statement saying he wants a more limited, bipartisan approach.

“I am hopeful that the Senate negotiations will result in a bipartisan package that strengthens penalties for illegal straw purchases, makes targeted improvements to the National Instant Background Check System (NICS), and provides federal resources for states to invest in community and school mental health services, safe storage programs, and to implement emergency protection orders similar to Maine’s so-called ‘yellow flag’ law,” Golden said.

The House bill is expected to fail in the Senate, but Republican Sen. Susan Collins is involved in negotiations for a bipartisan reform package and said she supports elements of the House bill. And independent Sen. Angus King said he would support raising the age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, a key provision in the House bill.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said some of the measures being discussed at the national level already exist in Maine, including safe storage laws and the so-called yellow-flag law, which allows police to confiscate firearms of people in mental health crisis after receiving a court order and a medical opinion.


“It’s not going to be everything the gun control community wants,” said Trahan. “We have already done those things in Maine. … We were ahead of our time.”

Advocacy groups on both sides of the gun control debate consider Maine to have moderately restrictive gun laws. It is not considered one of the more gun-friendly states by gun rights advocates. Nor is it rated among the states with strong regulations by those pushing for gun controls.

Overall, Maine is below the national average when it comes to gun violence, a result of the state’s low homicide rate. Maine ranks 26th in the country for gun safety, with about 10.4 gun deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 15 deaths, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.

However, Maine sees a higher rate of suicides and suicide attempts using firearms than the national average. The rate of death from a gun suicide is 9.2 per 100,000 people in Maine, compared to a rate of 6.9 per 100,000 people nationwide, according data collected by Everytown for Gun Safety.

Steve Cartwright at his home in Tenants Harbor on May 2. Cartwright lost his only son, Joel, to a gun suicide in 2008. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Steve Cartwright of Tenants Harbor lost his son, Joel, in 2008 to suicide with a gun. Cartwright, now 70, said he tried to get his son help after realizing he was spiraling into a deep depression, but was put on a waiting list. Then he had his son involuntarily committed the day after the 24-year-old attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills, but the hospital discharged his son after eight days.

Days after leaving the hospital, Joel walked to a sporting goods store, filled out a form and walked out with a handgun and ammunition and shot himself.  It should not have been that easy, Steve Cartwright said.


“(Joel) seemed to have a good present and a bright future – that didn’t make (his death) easier,” Cartwright said. “What did seem too easy is he could walk into a sporting goods store in Rockland, buy a gun and use it within hours.”

Cartwright is now among those in Maine who want more to be done to prevent gun violence, including increasing mental health support, expanding background checks to include medical information, implementing waiting periods and banning semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Steve Cartwright keeps this photo of his son, Joel Cartwright, in his bedroom at his home in Tenants Harbor. Cartwright lost Joel, his only son, to gun suicide in 2008. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I’m devastated by politicians who don’t think we need to do anything about the massacres or think we should arm the teachers or something absurd like that,” he said. 

Melcher said he doesn’t expect gun control to become a factor in this fall’s race for governor between former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills and political newcomer Sam Hunkler, a physician who is running as an independent. That’s partly because Mills has not given LePage any openings to criticize her record on gun control or public safety reforms, he said.

“I would say Gov. Mills has really been gingerly handling it,” he said. “Compared to what other Democrats would do, she has left fewer opportunities for LePage to poke her on this stuff.” 

Out of the gubernatorial candidates, LePage has perhaps the clearest stance on gun control, saying he would never infringe on the the right to bear arms.


In addition to opposing the 2016 referendum, LePage supported a new state law in 2013 that excluded concealed weapons permit information from the state’s public records law. He also championed a successful effort to make Maine a constitutional carry state, meaning that people over the age of 21 do not need a permit to carry a concealed firearm unless otherwise prohibited.

In a statement released by his campaign to the Press Herald last week, LePage noted that Maine has one of the lowest rates of gun crime, despite its relatively high ownership rates. He blamed gun violence on weak prosecutors in cities, mental illness and a lack of security measures in schools.

“The horrific violence we have seen, resulting from mental illness and evil, is only matched by the lawlessness in our nation’s largest cities driven by weak prosecutions,” said LePage, who worked during his previous two terms to dismantle safety net programs.

“We need to enforce the laws we have on the books, punish those who commit violent crimes, and seek stronger school safety measures and an effective mental health safety net,” he continued. “As a volunteer for many years in Waterville with charities which provided mental health services, I know it is critical we find and provide a helping hand to those in crisis with mental illness.”

When asked for specific policy proposals for dealing with mental health issues, his campaign strategist, Brent Littlefield, said LePage would be discussing his ideas “at a later time.”

Hunkler also said more needs to be done to address mental health issues, but did not offer specifics.


“Gun control is another example of where we need to bring all facets to the table,” he said. “This issue needs a solution starting from the bottom up rather than the top down. People buy guns because they hunt or they are afraid; neither need multi-magazine assault weapons, though the latter believe they do.”

He said mental health should be addressed like other health issues. “Anxiety, depression and PTSD are endemic in our society. We need better means to identify children at risk (who become adults at risk) and treat them effectively,” he said.

Mills, meanwhile, has a more complex record on guns. As a legislator representing the Farmington area from 2002 to 2008, Mills received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. That endorsement was used against her during the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, even though Mills by then had served as attorney general and, like other Democrats in the race, received a failing grade from the association.

During a June 2018 primary debate, Mills talked about how a former romantic partner held a loaded gun to her head while in a drunken rage and she expressed support for restrictions such as banning high-capacity magazines. But she later changed her position and dropped her opposition to semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines after meeting with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. The group gave her an A- but ultimately endorsed her Republican opponent, Shawn Moody.

After her election, which coincided with the election of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Mills made it clear that she was not interested in pursuing universal background checks, noting the failed 2016 referendum.

As Maine’s attorney general, Mills voiced support for a so-called “red flag” law that would allow police to seek a court order to temporarily confiscate someone’s guns if they were deemed by a judge to be a threat to themselves or others. But that bill was vetoed by LePage, who cited a lack of due process for the individual.


Mills did not take a position as governor when the red-flag bill was reintroduced by the Democratic Legislature in 2019. Instead, her office helped negotiate a compromise, resulting in the state’s existing yellow-flag law. Maine’s version adds a requirement that a medical professional provide an assessment of the individual that supports the need for intervention before a gun is taken away.

“The Governor’s focus has always been to bring together people of different views – including Democrats, Republicans, public safety officials, public health officials, members of the judicial system, advocates, community members, and more – to implement lasting public safety reforms,” Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said in an email. “That is the approach she took in 2019 when the Legislature overwhelmingly approved Maine’s yellow flag law, and that is the approach she will continue to take with any proposal that comes before the Legislature.”

One example of how politically sensitivity gun issues are in Maine is a new law directing the state to provide an annual report on gun violence to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Even though the bill was focused solely on collecting data related to firearms violence – deaths, suicides and injuries – neither “firearm” nor “gun” appeared in the title of the bill: “An Act Directing the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention To Release Annually Public Health Data Regarding Certain Fatalities and Hospitalizations.”

Keeping firearms out of the title was a way to keep the focus on public health, said its sponsor, Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach.

“I was really looking at this through the lens of a public health perspective,” Gramlich said. “I wasn’t looking at this through the lens of a gun bill.”


Still, the bill was opposed by all legislative Republicans, plus a few Democrats. Three House Republicans spoke against the bill, citing potential costs and arguing it would infringe on people’s Second Amendment rights and be used to create a gun registry.

“Public health that is funded by our tax dollars should not be used as a backdoor mechanism to infringe upon our Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms,” Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, said.

It became law without the governor’s signature – Crete said the governor was concerned about funding the initiative. The first report – a straightforward three-page document outlining gun-related deaths and injuries in 2020 – was quietly submitted to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee earlier this month.

The Legislature also passed a law in 2021 that holds parents and guardians criminally negligent if a child under the age of 16 gains access to an unsecured, loaded firearm and uses it recklessly or in a threatening manner, uses it in a crime or discharges it. That bill narrowly passed the Senate, after passing the House on a mostly party-line vote. It, too, became law without the governor’s signature.

Bickford, of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said he’s frustrated that Mills, who he believes cares about gun safety issues, didn’t work more closely with control advocates during her first term or support expanded background checks or the red-flag law. He hopes that will change is she’s re-elected to a second term.

Bickford said he was in high school when the Columbine massacre occurred in 1999. He’s now a parent who worries about his own children’s safety at school and hopes that there’s a critical mass of people here in Maine and across the country who support reforms.

“We have failed our kids. It is just abysmal that we are now in our second generation that has grown up with school shootings,” he said. “I just hope that this is the end – that there will not be another generation and that my kids will be able to go to high school and not worry about the sound of every loud door that shuts, or me dropping them off and not knowing if I’m going to pick them up.”

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