The Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, speaks in Augusta on Thursday during a hearing on bills submitted in response to the mass shooting in Lewiston. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Supporters of potentially historic gun law reforms packed the State House last week, evidence of strong momentum for change more than four months after the deadliest mass shooting in Maine history.

But defenders of traditional gun rights also made their voices heard during a series of crowded legislative hearings, vowing to once again fend off efforts to restrict their Second Amendment rights.

The Lewiston mass shooting in October inspired a slate of proposals that had been considered and rejected in recent years, including mandatory background checks for private gun sales and a 72-hour waiting period for firearm purchases.

One bill would make it easier for police to use the state’s so-called yellow flag law to seize weapons from someone who poses a threat, while a new proposal submitted last week would replace it with a red flag law to make seizures even easier.

While it’s unclear exactly how much could change, some political observers and lawmakers say the mass shooting may have prompted a shift in support of changes to gun laws and make it easier for the proposals to pass. The shift is evident even in the level of public debate since the tragedy.

“I think the big change is people are talking about, how do we deal with these things? How does the yellow flag law work? Where are places it could be changed?” said Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington. “Before the Lewiston shooting, I don’t think this would have been on the agenda much at all.”



Judi Richardson, of South Portland, has been advocating for reforms such as mandatory background checks for years since her daughter, Darien, was shot and killed by an intruder who broke into her Portland bedroom in 2010.

Fourteen years later, police have not caught Darien’s killer. And Richardson said it was impossible to track down the owner of the gun used in the crime because it was bought without a background check in a private sale.

She pleaded with lawmakers during Thursday’s eight-hour public hearing on the proposals to finally expand the background check to private sales.

“Leaders in Maine must expand background checks and hold reckless sellers accountable to keep guns out of the hands of people who can’t have them,” Richardson said.

But supporters of gun rights also filled the State House and argued that the Lewiston shooting had not changed anything when it comes to the proposals put forward by Democratic lawmakers, contending that none of them would have prevented the tragedy.


Maine voters defeated a referendum on expanded background checks in 2016, Josh Raines, vice president of Gun Owners of Maine, reminded lawmakers during the hearing Thursday.

Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, who co-chairs the committee that heard the testimony, asked Raines whether public sentiment has changed since the 2016 vote.

“In all honesty, I have not seen a change in mindset in that,” Raines said.

“I’ve taken it upon myself to reach out to those in surrounding communities that aren’t gun owners … and after lengthy discussions, the problem isn’t what they believe it to be, which is untrackable firearms or a private sale that hasn’t gone through a background check,” he said.

Advocates for gun safety reforms and for gun owners’ rights filled the Maine State House on Thursday for public hearings on proposed gun law reforms. Randy Billings/Staff Writer

Just last year, months before the mass shooting, Maine lawmakers again rejected a proposal to expand background checks to some private sales. The new proposal from Gov. Janet Mills is slightly different, applying only to advertised sales.

The Lewiston shooter legally bought his semi-automatic rifle from a licensed dealer months before the shootings, and nothing in his background check would have prohibited him from buying weapons.


But Melcher said he expects the Lewiston shooting could prompt an increase in support for that particular reform.

“(The Lewiston shooting) was one of the most catastrophic events in modern Maine history,” Melcher said. “People here didn’t really imagine something like that could happen here and, with all the continuing news coverage about Mr. Card and his traumatic brain injury and so on, it’s not the kind of story that just fades away.”

Melcher cited the 2016 referendum as an example of Maine’s historical reluctance to change gun laws. But, he said, opponents at the time were able to drum up a lot of support for the idea that the change was being driven by out-of-state interests.

“This is different,” he said. “A lot of the ideas have really sprung up organically about change.”


Maine passed its yellow flag law in 2019, allowing police to take away guns, but only after a process that involves protective custody and a mental health evaluation. Maine is the only state with such a law, which police have described as difficult and cumbersome to use.


Mills has said her proposed reforms would make it easier for law enforcement to take someone into protective custody for a mental health evaluation. Some mental health advocates called this week for the evaluation requirement to be eliminated, saying it wrongly draws a direct correlation between mental illness and violence.

Last week, Rep. Sally Cluchey, D-Bowdoinham, submitted a proposed amendment to Mills’ bill, L.D. 2224, to instead adopt a red flag law, which is used in 22 other states. It would allow a family member or officer to seek a court order to take away someone’s guns, at least temporarily. Such requests would require evidence supporting the order, but they wouldn’t require formal mental health evaluations from a medical professional.

Maine’s Legislature considered and rejected a red flag law in 2019. Cluchey said she believes there is now strong support among fellow House Democrats for her proposal. She said the state has had time to see how the yellow flag law has worked – and not worked.

“I think what we’ve seen is it’s a really cumbersome process, and what it does is stigmatize people with mental illness,” Cluchey said. “We need a streamlined approach to help people in crisis who may not have a diagnosed mental illness but who may have something in their life that’s putting them in a moment of crisis.”


Democratic Party leaders have voiced support for many of the proposed changes, and Democrats have majorities in both the House and Senate. But the bills could still face uphill battles because many Democrats also have long stood for protecting the rights of gun owners.


Maine is known as a gun-friendly state with deep traditions of firearm ownership and hunting, and the data backs it up. Nearly half of Maine residents own firearms, a higher rate than every state in the region except Vermont, according to Pew Research Center data. Five states in the Northeast have ownership rates below 20%. In Massachusetts, about 15% of residents own a gun.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit that advocates for laws such as background checks, waiting periods and red flag laws, gives Maine a D-minus for gun safety.

The day after testifying at the marathon hearing in Augusta about her daughter’s 2010 murder, Richardson said she thinks things have changed.

“It’s hard to say with Maine,” she said. “I have been working on this issue a long time, and we’ve really only weakened the laws that we have. Maine has very few gun laws,but I’m hoping this will be the time. If it’s not now, I don’t know when it would be.”

The hearing last week was encouraging, she said. “In the past, we haven’t always had a great turnout. But yesterday we did.”

Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who is sponsoring the governor’s proposal and the 72-hour waiting period bill, said she is hopeful, too.


“The mass shooting in Lewiston has shaken a lot of people in the state, and I feel that many people are seeing gun violence differently now as a result of the mass shooting,” Rotundo said. “I’m hoping that the horrible tragedy we experienced here will move people to support bills that are really focused on preventing gun violence.”

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said he expects Republicans to stay united.

“I would be very surprised if any Republicans supported 72-hour waiting periods, a recycled, perennial proposal from Democrats bent on stripping away the rights of law-abiding citizens, and which would have changed absolutely nothing about the tragedy that occurred in Lewiston,” he said.

The votes will likely come down to a small number of Democrats.

One Democratic lawmaker who voted last year against the 72-hour waiting period and background check proposals, Rep. Tavis Hasenfus, D-Readfield, said striking a balance between people’s right to have guns and defend themselves and public safety measures has at times been a challenge for him and other lawmakers.

Hasenfus said he’s still reading through the new bills and hasn’t yet decided if he will support them.

“I think having a deeper and longer conversation about it and getting all the perspectives in is important,” Hasenfus said. “They’re hard decisions because (we’re trying to figure out) what is really going to work and how will it work. I don’t know what the best policy is. I’m looking everywhere to see what does work, what will work for Maine, what will or won’t reduce violence, and balancing that with people’s rights.”

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