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After Mass Shooting in Maine, No Clarity on Whether Gun Laws Will Change

On Sunday, Arthur Barnard will bury his oldest child, Artie Strout, 42, who was one of the 18 people killed in the country’s deadliest mass shooting so far this year.

Mr. Barnard, 62, is devastated. But he is also furious. Why do five of his grandchildren no longer have a father? Why was the gunman able to legally purchase such a deadly military-style weapon?

“They’re not going to try to do a mass shooting with a pistol,” he said.

In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, on Oct. 25, the state is facing intense scrutiny over its permissive gun laws. For instance, Maine allows most adults to carry a concealed weapon in public without a permit. Recent attempts to enact laws requiring universal background checks and waiting periods have failed.

Also under examination is Maine’s existing law for taking guns away from people who may be a threat to themselves or others.

Notably, about six weeks ago, the police in Maine received explicit warnings that the gunman had said he would go on a shooting spree. But there is no indication in public documents that any law enforcement officers ever made contact with him about it.

Now, as some Mainers try to assess which laws may need to be changed or reviewed, concrete proposals are scarce, and the prospects for new gun restrictions remain murky at best.

“Action is needed,” Gov. Janet Mills said on Monday.

She stopped short of endorsing any specific policy measure, like a ban on assault weapons. Instead, Ms. Mills, a Democrat, called for “a serious and robust conversation about gun violence and public safety.”

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.)

“Maine is supposed to be real safe,” said Robert Menges, 68, of Lisbon Falls, near Lewiston. “And we’ve joined the family of places that have had this happen.”

To date, just one prominent Maine legislator has had a public change of heart over gun regulation. On Thursday, within hours of the massacre, U.S. Representative Jared Golden reversed his long-held position on reviving a national ban on assault weapons.

Mr. Golden was one of only five Democrats to oppose the measure last July. On Thursday, he expressed remorse and said that his opposition had been a “failure.”

“I recognize this dangerous world all too well, but I had convinced myself that we are protected against it here in Maine,” he wrote in a letter to his constituents on Sunday.

“Clearly,” he continued, “we are not.”

Artie Strout, who was killed in Lewiston at the age of 42, “always checked on everybody,” his father said.Credit…Andrew Cullen for The New York Times

Some Mainers, and many academics and advocates, agree on the primacy of getting military-style weapons off the streets.

“The weapon is critical to all of this,” said Margaret Groban, a board member of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition. “If someone were in a mental health crisis but didn’t have an assault weapon, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Notably, the gunman who killed 22 people in Nova Scotia in 2020 bought some of his guns in Maine. Many in the state said they had feared that a mass shooting in Maine was only a matter of time.

“It’s one of the most permissive states in the country,” said Michael Rocque, a sociology professor at Bates College in Lewiston who studies mass shootings.

Other Mainers point to a failure of mental health services and alerting systems.

Unlike states with “red flag” laws that allow families to petition a judge directly to take weapons away from people who are a danger to others or themselves, Maine has a “yellow flag” law that requires a longer, more complex and time-consuming process. Under the three-year-old current version of the law, drafted with input from a state gun rights group, three entities — the police, a mental health clinician and a judge — must agree that an individual is a danger before firearms can be taken away.

“It certainly seems that, on the basis of the facts that we have, the yellow flag law should have been triggered,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said last week, adding that the gunman “should have been separated from his weapons.”

Ms. Groban, a former federal prosecutor, said the three-step requirement in Maine’s law is “two steps too many.”

As for possible changes to Maine’s gun laws, Professor Rocque and other experts said they expected the most movement be around people in crisis — if any changes were to come at all.

“I think that there’s a possibility that we could move toward a red flag law,” he said.

Many Mainers are skeptical, though, given how deeply embedded gun rights and the use of guns for recreation and self-defense are in Maine’s laws and culture.

Jeffrey Evangelos, a former four-term state representative from the small coastal town of Friendship, said he did not expect to see stricter measures enacted.

“Maine is a gun culture,” said Mr. Evangelos, an independent. “And the legitimate position of rural people is that they are law-abiding hunters and citizens who don’t want anything to interfere with their Second Amendment.”

In the days since the mass shooting in Lewiston, some nearby gun shops say they have seen a jump in sales.

Gage Jordan, who owns G3 Firearms in Turner, estimated that sales were up 80 percent compared with a normal weekday at this time of year.

“New gun owners are saying, ‘I don’t ever want to be caught in that position,’” he said.

Many people in the area have expressed their surprise that no one fired back when the shooting began in Lewiston. Gun advocates blame what they call “gun-free zones,” where people are not legally allowed to bring guns. Often, those places serve alcohol.

Such zones “enable those who seek as little resistance as possible to do more harm before they are stopped,” Laura Whitcomb, the president of the Gun Owners of Maine, wrote in an email.

Of the two businesses struck by the gunman last week in Lewiston, Schemengees Bar and Grille had a sign on the door that said guns were not allowed. No such sign was visible on the door at the Just-In-Time Recreation bowling alley on Tuesday. There is no evidence in either case that a notice affected the gunman’s choice of a target.

As debates rage and families prepare to bury their dead, it’s not clear what will happen next.

State Representative Vicki Doudera, a Democrat who led a rare successful effort two years ago to legislate safer gun storage, said on Monday that she was optimistic that more change could happen.

Struck by Representative Golden’s reversal on assault weapons, some of Ms. Doudera’s colleagues “are looking at that and rethinking things,” she said, adding, “I know we are going to make progress.”

Governor Mills, who can file proposed legislation at any time, has the most direct route to introduce a bill when the State Legislature reconvenes in January. Observers said that she had generally been reluctant to wade into the gun control debate, but might be more free to do so now, as a second-term governor who cannot seek re-election.

If the governor does not file a bill, the path to legislation becomes more complicated, because the deadline for lawmakers to submit bills for the current term has already passed. Lawmakers can file an after-deadline bill only if it is approved by six legislators on a bipartisan 10-member board.

Bobby Dombroski, 39, who lives in Waterville, favors stronger gun control measures. But he knows how dug in people are on gun issues, and he knows how little has changed since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012.

“If kids dying didn’t do it,” he said, “I don’t know what will.”

Reporting was contributed by Sydney Cromwell, Emily Cochrane Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Chelsia Rose Marcius.

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