After two known incidents in the past six months in which young children in West Bath fired their parent’s unsecured firearm, gun control advocates are calling for public education on safe gun storage — and for Maine lawmakers to adopt stronger firearm regulations.
Last week, Stephen R. Ambrose, 24, of West Bath was charged with endangering the welfare of a child after his 4-year-old stepson picked up his unsecured 40 caliber semi-automatic pistol and fired a round into an adjacent apartment, according to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office.
Ambrose allegedly took the weapon out of a closet and set it on a dresser in the bedroom before leaving to retrieve his holster and belt. The bullet penetrated a wall and passed through the closet door of a nearby apartment, but no one was injured, according to police.
In May, the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office arrested Ian Carr, 25, of West Bath and charged him with endangering the welfare of a child after Carr’s 2-year-old son found his unsecured, loaded 9mm handgun on a nightstand and fired a single shot that injured both parents, who were asleep at the time.
The boy’s mother, Carrie Savoie, 22, sustained a gunshot wound to her leg and Carr was struck in the back of the head by two bullet fragments, according to Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry. The gun’s recoil injured the child. An infant was also asleep in the room, but unharmed.
In both cases, gun regulation advocates argue storing a gun in a locked container or using a trigger lock that attaches to a weapon itself would have saved the West Bath children from finding or shooting the firearms in their homes.
“It takes but a moment for a child to find a gun and discharge it,” said Geoff Bickford, executive director of Maine Gun Safety Coalition, an organization aimed at protecting Mainers from gun violence. “There’s no logical, sincere or genuine excuse in the state of Maine to have an unsecured firearm because we will give you a gun lock free of charge.”
Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry stressed he isn’t “anti-gun,” but said gun owners must “respect that it’s a dangerous weapon.”
“If not handled properly, people can get severely hurt or killed,” said Merry. “Part of (respecting the weapon) is locking it or putting it in a place where curious minds won’t have access to it.”
The department has also given out free gun locks for the 12 years Merry has been sheriff, he said. He said community members have taken “dozens” over the years, but he hasn’t kept track of exactly how many were taken and when.
Following the two incidents in West Bath, Merry said his department is developing a free program on gun handling, use and storage. That program should be ready within the next two to three months, he said.
“In light of these situations, we feel we have an obligation to our communities to be part of the solution to this,” said Merry. “Two instances within a six-month period in the same town on the same road has caused us to ask, ‘What can we do to respond to this in a positive way?’ We can’t be responding to more of these. Sooner or later one of these is going to end tragically.”
The two incidents in West Bath aren’t isolated — they’re becoming more frequent in the U.S.
In 2020 there were at least 369 unintentional shootings by children nationwide, resulting in 142 deaths and 242 injuries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun violence prevention and gun control advocacy nonprofit organization. The year before, the U.S. saw 309 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 120 deaths and 203 injuries, that happened in the U.S. the year before.
So far this year, there have been at least 272 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 111 deaths and 175 injuries nationally, according to the organization. Of those, five incidents happened in Maine, including the most recent incident in West Bath.
The organization also stressed that when children unintentionally fire a gun and injure or kill someone, that victim is a minor in 91% of cases.
Though locking a gun to protect children is easy and free, it’s not required by Maine law. In fact, very few things are required by Maine law for a person to own a gun.
“In Maine, there’s no requirement that a person have any knowledge of how to store a gun safely,” said Bickford. “There’s no training course, test, licensing, nothing. It’s easier to buy a gun in Maine than it is to buy a car. If you’re of age and pass a background check, you can get a gun, which is an insane way to run things.”
Should individual municipalities find the state’s constitutional allowance on firearms too lenient, governing bodies don’t have another option but to wait for the statewide laws to change.
Maine’s law on firearm regulations states municipalities cannot “adopt any order, ordinance, rule or regulation concerning the sale, purchase, purchase delay, transfer, ownership, use, possession, bearing, transportation, licensing, permitting, registration, taxation or any other matter pertaining to firearms, components, ammunition or supplies.”
Firearm regulation advocates said Maine has a long way to go to match what other states have enacted to protect residents from gun violence, but Maine isn’t starting from scratch.
In early June, the Maine Legislature passed a bill changing the state’s child endangerment law to hold parents accountable if their child gets their hands on their gun and uses it.
According to the new law, storing or leaving a loaded firearm “in a manner that allows a child under 16 years of age to gain access to the loaded firearm without the permission of the child’s parent, foster parent or guardian and the child in fact gains access to the loaded firearm” and fires it would be considered endangering the welfare of a child.
Endangering the welfare of a child is a Class D crime punishable by up to 364 days incarceration and a $2,000 fine, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
Democrat Rep. Vicki Doudera of Camden, chairperson of the Gun Safety Caucus and the law’s sponsor, said she believes the state needs “an education campaign” to teach Mainers about the new law to stop incidents like the two in West Bath from continuing.
“We need a campaign that tells people if you have children or if children are coming to your home, you need to lock your guns,” said Doudera. “There are safe ways to own a gun and have children, but leaving a loaded gun on a dresser or bedside table is not the way to do it. Most firearm owners are responsible and do the right thing already, but we need to reach the people who aren’t doing the right thing. We know this is an issue because it keeps happening.”
Though her legislation addresses exactly what happened in West Bath, Doudera said a new law doesn’t change behavior overnight, and groups like sportsmen’s alliances, pediatricians and schools have to be involved.
“Now that this is a law, we all need to be reaching out to parents and people who have children visit their homes and make sure everyone understands what safe storage really means,” said Doudera.
The new law is only one step in the right direction, according to Sean Holihan, state legislative director at Giffords, a national nonprofit looking to reduce gun violence by mobilizing voters and educating lawmakers and headed by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a shooting in Arizona.
Holihan said Maine’s law is “not as strong” as more proactive laws other states have adopted that enforce simple safety precautions most responsible gun owners likely follow already.
“We’re asking the bare minimum of people,” said Sean Holihan, “If you have a gun in your house, make sure you store it responsibly, especially if you have kids. America has clearly shown with loose gun laws, tragedies happen every day.”
For example, Massachusetts has a safe storage law that states it’s illegal to store a firearm “unless such weapon is secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock or other safety device.”
If no further gun regulation legislation is coming, Bickford argued the responsibility of ensuring gun owners safely store their guns falls on gun sellers and the gun-owning community.
“Most gun owners in the state are reasonable, responsible, and secure their firearms,” said Bickford. “There needs to be more of a campaign inside the sportsman’s and gun-owning community to make sure all gun owners act responsibly and safely.”
The National Rifle Association, which largely opposes gun regulation legislation in favor of self-governance, states a gun should be kept unloaded and stored where “unauthorized persons” can’t access it, according to its rules for gun owners. The association also recommends keeping a gun in a locked container or using a lock that attaches into the gun itself when children live in the home.
Bickford said those that sell guns also have “a moral responsibility” to make sure anyone buying a gun knows how to use it and store it safely.
“It’s perhaps among the most lethal things someone can possess and they’re letting people walk out the door who have never held a gun before,” said Bickford. “If you’re a car dealer, you have a legal and moral obligation to make sure a person is licensed before they drive off the lot because they could kill somebody. It’s no different than a gun.”
The number of gun sales in Maine are on the rise as well, according to data on the number of background checks the FBI ran on buyers each month. Federal law requires federally licensed firearms dealers, but not private sellers, to run a background check on a purchaser before they’re allowed to purchase a firearm.
In 2019, the FBI ran just over 90,600 firearm background checks in Maine, according to data from the bureau’s website. In 2020, the number of firearm background checks jumped to nearly 137,150. This year, the state is on track to top 2019’s number again. As of August 31, the FBI ran about 83,200 background checks on Mainers looking to purchase a firearm.