It’s a time for mourning here in Maine.

As we mourn, we must begin to ask serious questions about the tragedy in Lewiston and our response.

Having gone to school nearby, having lived and worked in Lewiston, it’s difficult for me to to comprehend the tragedy that struck that community. Eighteen innocent people are gone because of an act of brutal violence. While we cannot simply do nothing, we must act sensibly. It’s easy to say that we need more laws, and we may. First, though, it’s important to address the failures of our system that let people die.

While we all must thank the heroic efforts of our police and first responders, they are not above questioning, just like any other public officials.

On the night of Oct. 25, for instance, even after it was clear that there were two separate shootings, it took around 45 minutes after police became aware of that to issue a police alert and a shelter-in-place order.

While that might not seem like much time, the second location of the shooting, Schemengees Bar and Grille, is only 35 minutes from the Portland International Jetport. Had the shooter been determined to escape – or wreak havoc at a third location – he’d have had plenty of time to do so before any warnings were even issued. Keep in mind, too, at this point police had only just released his picture; they hadn’t identified him, nor did they know his motive or plan. If anything, it seems as if they underreacted to the situation, at first. It seemed especially odd and disturbing the next morning, when the shooter could have been anywhere in the state and shelter-in-place orders were still only locally applied.

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Apart from the immediate response and ensuing manhunt, there are legitimate questions to be raised about the events leading up to the shootings. While we don’t know much yet about the circumstances leading up to the shooter’s hospitalization, it’s been reported that the Army shared relevant information with law enforcement officials. They certainly should have been able to do so; this is a prime example of a person who should have been caught by Maine’s recently enacted yellow flag law, allowing authorities to seize a person’s firearms. If federal laws or other policies prevented the Army from sharing that information, those need to be changed. If that information was shared and not acted on, that will need to be addressed.

It’s not just up to members of the media to ask these questions, but our own elected representatives at all levels of government, state and federal.

It’s often overlooked by the media because it’s the least flashy part of the job, but oversight is a key part of the job for legislators. It’s certainly not as impressive as making speeches, shutting down the government or railing against political opponents, but it’s key. It’s what helps to tamp down on conspiracy theories after major events (though there are some people who will always simply deny reality). Without even a pretense of a bipartisan investigation, though, more conspiracy theories will be encouraged.

Failure of oversight is sadly commonplace these days. Congress was never able to have a bipartisan independent commission investigating the Jan. 6 riots on the Capitol. Similarly, it’s been four years since the pandemic began, and we still haven’t gotten a commission investigating the response at either the state or federal level. That means state and federal legislators are failing to do their jobs.

We can’t afford to fail in Maine after the shootings in Lewiston; such a failure would be an insult to the victims and their families.

The very first order of business for the Legislature when it returns to session should be to establish a bipartisan commission investigating the shooting and the response. The commission that Gov. Mills announced last Wednesday is a good start, but the Legislature should enact its own truly independent review; the executive branch cannot investigate itself. That should be the one bill next session that passes with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Other issues, such as state regulation of firearms, will be instantly partisan. That should not be the case here.

It may seem like everything is political and partisan now, but members of the Legislature ought to be able to agree to do their job. If they can’t fulfill this fundamental duty, it’s time for us to find new leaders who will.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
jwfossel@gmail.com
Twitter: @jimfossel

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