Maine is in its perennial gun regulation debate, with renewed energy after our Lewiston experience and a renewed focus on mental health. In one week alone earlier this month, the Press Herald carried three contributions on mental health.

Letter writer David Moltz linked “impusivity,” gun violence and suicides to a 72-hour waiting period before a gun purchase. The following day, Dana Williams suggested churches and other organizations focus, in part, on the establishment of “risk protection orders.” In an op-ed published a day later, Paul Potvin pointed out Maine’s “especially high rate of suicide” and suggested closing a background check “loophole” for private gun sales.

Each of these proposals has its own strengths, but none considers important facts before it plots a path forward. Do we really want to establish a process for “mental health care providers” to document who can or cannot have a gun? This delegation of decision making to a state staff member is the recognized weakness of our yellow flag law; even the police haven’t wanted to make this call. This is a red flag law avoidance mechanism – well-meaning but impractical.

Also, while it is true that many gun deaths in Maine are suicides, there is no evidence to support the idea that Maine’s people are particularly “impulsive” or that we have “an especially high rate of suicide.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we rank 16th in the country – at the top of the middle third of the states – in suicides. Maine’s rural character is often cited as a reason for its suicides, but by my count, there are 15 less rural states with higher suicide rates. Yes, suicide is awful. Yes, care must be taken to prevent it. But it doesn’t look like we have a very clear understanding of our issue.

What are the facts? First, Maine ranks ninth in the country for the number of gun violence deaths, a ranking unchanged since 2015. However, although our ranking remains unchanged, the numbers are going up. Second, Maine’s gun violence death rate, 14th in the country and the highest in New England, has gone up since 2015, when we were ninth. The simple fact is that we are seeing more gun violence deaths, both in raw numbers and in rates.

Third, Maine is already the most generous state in the country when it comes to mental health spending. According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration figures, Maine spends more money per capita on mental health services than any other state. According to a 2017 report of the Mental Illness Policy Organization, Maine spent the highest percentage of its state budget on mental health issues in the country.


If these are the facts, what are our issues? Spending on mental health is not an issue. What may be an issue is how, not how much, we spend our money. How is it that Maine ranks 14th-lowest – not first-lowest – in gun violence deaths, although we spend the most on mental health per capita, while Florida, which spends the least, ranks 17th, only three ranks lower than Maine?

There is no clear connection between state spending on mental health and death by gun violence. We need to get to the bottom of that link if we are going to be both proactive in reducing death by gun violence and also good stewards of state funds.

The solution is to balance state spending on mental health and the regulation of guns.

We know we’re already doing our part on the former, although some focus would be helpful. At a minimum, we need a red flag law. And we also need to address the latter by, at a minimum, adopting a 72-hour waiting period. It can’t be one or the other. It must be both; they are linked.

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