Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The politics of guns in Maine, before and after a mass murder

New York Times screenshot from Oct. 27, 2023

Maine has been very much in the headlines for nearly a week, prompted by the nation's worst mass murder of 2023.  It began at about 7 pm Eastern time on Wednesday night, October 25, when Robert Card, 40, entered a bowling alley in Lewiston (population 37,000) with a semi-automatic weapon and began shooting.  Less than half an hour later, Card entered a bar and grill and used his weapon to kill and wound many others.   

Lewiston, with a population of 37,000, is the state's second largest city (after Portland), and it sits across the river from Auburn, population 24,000, and the county seat of Androscoggin County.  Based on the size of the population cluster, the area hardly sounds rural, but rural is a descriptor that's often been used in coverage of these events.  More often still, I have heard the word "forested" used, which is perhaps more salient with regard to the hunting theme, which I'll unpack below. 

I didn't know much about Maine's gun laws when this disaster began to unfold in the media, but we were soon to learn more.  In short, Maine's gun laws are quite lax, in part because of the state's culture, which values self-reliance and enjoys hunting, two things that happen to be related, to at least some degree.  

In the days since the mass murder, hunting has been very much a part of the story of how officials have responded to this tragedy.   For example, even after the shelter-in-place order was lifted on Friday, hunting was prohibited in the towns of Lewiston, Lisbon, Bowdoin, and Monmouth.  As the New York Times reported (see screenshot above), deer-hunting firearms season had been scheduled to begin on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, but it was initially postponed after Wednesday night's events--at least in the Lewiston-Auburn area

New York Times Screenshot, Oct. 27, 2023
following the discovery of gunman Robert Card's body 

We've also seen plenty of mentions of the state's "gun culture" in coverage of Wednesday night's events.  One New York Times headline was "After Shooting, Maine Senators in Spotlight on Guns," which included this tidbit.   

The carnage in Lewiston came as a shock to Maine, which the F.B.I., in a statistical update on crime Monday, called the safest state in the country. It also has one of the largest percentages of gun ownership.
The story quotes U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine):  
Our state has a long history of responsible gun ownership.

But the most momentous political statement about guns came from Maine's congressman for the state's second district, Jared Golden.  That district is massive, stretching from Lewiston all the way to the Canadian border.  (The state's only other district, the 1st,  includes Portland, just 40 miles south of Lewiston, and points south to Massachusetts). Some would say that Golden, a former Marine, is barely a Democrat.  Certainly, he is a centrist who has straddled a fine line between the two parties--and between rural and urban interests--with his constituents.  That is reflected in these August comments about student loan forgiveness, which he vigorously opposed as in the interests of elites and not in the interests of working-class Mainers who choose not to go to college.  

Well, less than 24 hours after the shooting, Golden, who grew up in Lewiston and attended Bates College there, grabbed the headlines by doing an about-face on his previous position on assault weapons.  As the New York Times reported it, Golden "stunned constituents in his traditionally pro-gun district by "declaring that it was time for him “to take responsibility” for his “failure” to back a ban on assault weapons, “like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing.”  The full comments, as reported in the (Portland) Press-Herald follow: 

I have opposed efforts to ban deadly weapons of war, like the assault rifle used to carry out this crime. The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the U.S. Congress to ban assault rifles, like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing in my hometown of Lewiston, Maine.

For the good of my community. I will work with any colleague to get this done in the time that I have left in Congress.

Interestingly, Senator King  acknowledged Congressman Golden's "courage" in shifting his position on assault weapons, but neither he nor Maine's other U.S. Senator, Susan Collins, changed theirs.  In this NPR story, Collins is quoted as suggesting that the state's "yellow flag" law should have caused the shooter's guns to be seized.  We've since learned more about the failure of officials to act adequately on multiple reports that Card was having mental health challenges.

Back to hunting:  It's interesting that a significant aspect of the local news once Card's body was found Friday night was that hunting could resume.  It merited this "public security alert."

Screenshot from New York Times breaking news stream
at 7:55 PM Pacific, Oct. 27, 2023

Cellphones across Lewiston area just dinged with a public safety alert:  "The search is over for Mr. Card.  The caution is over.  Hunting may resume."

Postscript:  On Oct. 31, the New York Times reported under the headline, "After Mass Shooting in Maine, No Clarity on Whether Gun Laws will Change."  Here's a salient excerpt: 

Maine has a strong hunting tradition and high rates of gun ownership. It has also long had one of the lowest murder rates in the country. There were 19 firearm homicides in the state last year — just one more than the number of people who were shot to death in Lewiston in a single day. (Guns were also used in 159 suicides last year, out of 183 total gun deaths in the state.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is interesting how hunting interacts with gun rights and the second amendment. I used to work for a plant laboratory and the bulk of our funding came from hunter's rights groups. These groups gave the lab funding because they wanted us to better manage invasive plant populations so hunters had more visibility when hunting. I recently learned that about four years ago, Maine passed a gun safety law aimed to prevent mass shootings. This "yellow flag" law, which outlines steps that must be taken before a weapon can be removed from an individual who poses a danger to himself or others. Looking back at what happened in Lewiston, I hope red flag laws will be passed, but remain skeptical.