When three children and three adults were gunned down at Nashville’s Covenant School, Tim Burchett, their local congressman, was philosophical: “There’s a whole lot of evil … in this world … not a whole lot we can do. Just very helpless feeling.” Rep. Burchett may be helpless; his country is not. Responding to public danger with public action is almost an American reflex. After the Titanic, we altered the course of maritime safety. When poisoned Tylenol killed a child, we changed drug packaging. Seatbelts radically reduced highway deaths.

But in lives lost, the sheer scale of gun casualties is in a class of its own. In 2021, Americans died from gunshot wounds at the highest rate in 30 years; in particular, more children die from gunfire than from car crashes, or disease, or … anything. From 2001 to 2021, gun deaths spiked from 29,573 to 48,830. Yet after 9/11, we transformed airline safety and created the Department of Homeland Security; after mass killings, we offer only thoughts and prayers.

Why is gun slaughter an outlier in this tradition of responding to crisis with action? In the past, two obstacles stood out; both now seem surmountable. First, the gun lobby regards gun ownership as a kind of “uber right,” overriding other personal rights secured by the Constitution; thus, any regulation of gun ownership unacceptably infringes personal liberty. Americans now increasingly reject that view. Recently, Fox News polled Americans on six proposed gun regulations – in a sample spanning party, gender, age and gun ownership – every measure got at least 77% support.

Second, we tend to compartmentalize the things that frighten us, to push them away, to downplay the immediate dangers. So it is with mass killings. Horrific as the attacks in Columbine or Parkland or Las Vegas or Uvalde were, we tell ourselves they won’t happen here. This spring, they happened here. Four friends were killed as they visited in a Bowdoin home; three other people, all members of the same family, were wounded just driving on Interstate 295 in Yarmouth. The ubiquity – and now localness – of mass killing defeats our efforts to deny their immediacy. And so they should, Maine has the highest per capita gun death rate in the Northeast and a rapidly rising rate of suicide-by-gun.

Four gun safety bills now before the Maine House of Representatives are actions we can take today to protect our communities. The criminal background check bill (L.D. 168) closes a loophole allowing criminals to buy guns in Maine when their criminal records would prevent them from buying guns in stricter states. The legislation would require private gun buyers to submit to the same checks that now apply to purchasers from federally licensed dealers.

Another bill would ban the sale of a firearm to a person prohibited from having one under federal law.  L.D. 22 would make it illegal to sell guns to those federally prohibited buyers – including fugitives, persons convicted of a felony or domestic abuse, persons dangerous to themselves or others, or under a restraining order.

A third measure (L.D. 60) addresses Maine’s high rate of suicide-by-gun. Because suicide is generally an impulsive act, other states have found that by requiring a buyer to wait 72 hours between their purchase of a gun and their taking delivery, the rate of suicide is significantly less than what it is in states without a waiting period.

A fourth bill (L.D. 1340) would ban devices to convert firearms into weapons capable of firing up to 1,200 bullets per minute. The mass murderer of 58 people who injured 500 others in Las Vegas used such a device. These devices, which enable criminals to outgun our police, have no place in Maine.

By passing these bills we can start to slow the spread of gun slaughter. After all, gun slaughter is not something we just have to endure, like earthquakes or hurricanes. We are helpless only if we choose to be. Let us choose to act.

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