Maine’s gun laws couldn’t stop 2 deadly shootings this year. Are more laws the answer?

Firearms


A rack of firearms sits on a table as gun sellers prepare for the Annual Twin Cities Gun Show at the Lewiston Armory. Private gun sales in Maine are not required to pass a background check. Several gun control measures failed in this year’s legislative session, including bills that would have required universal background checks and a 72-hour waiting period.  Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Joseph Eaton, a convicted felon, was prohibited by federal and state law from possessing firearms. But those bans did not stop him, fresh out of prison, from staying at a home where firearms were present, grabbing his mother’s handgun from her bag and – by his own admission – killing his parents and two close family friends.

Marcel LaGrange’s violent behavior and emotional instability repeatedly put him behind bars first at Long Creek Youth Development Center, where he told corrections staff he planned to kill innocent people, and then at the Cumberland County jail. But no state or federal law prevented him from possessing a firearm, and his wasn’t taken away until he allegedly killed a Westbrook couple, seemingly at random, in a parking lot in front of their two children.

In Maine, these cases have been used by people on both sides of the gun control debate to argue that gun laws don’t work or that more gun laws are required. And the public discourse has grown more heated.

Because the state is one of the few with high rates of firearm ownership but low rates of homicide, it has rarely been forced to reconcile its hunting culture and libertarian streak with the violence that regularly shakes other parts of the country.

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But as incidents of gun violence have grown here, it’s no longer easy to sit on the sidelines and watch the national debate over how to prevent them.

In Maine, the question is not really about how Eaton and LaGrange got guns – because few restrictions or safeguards exist to stand in their way. It’s whether the state might ever enact stricter gun laws and how much difference that would make in keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris has advocated for stronger gun laws in the state. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris, who called for tougher gun laws after Eaton’s April shooting sprees in Bowdoin and Yarmouth, is not so optimistic. The state, she said, has a surplus of guns and a shortage of political will to close firearm loopholes.

“It’s uncomfortable in Maine to talk about guns,” Sartoris said. “Maine has a kind of bipartisan support for the Second Amendment in its most extreme form.”

Efforts to reform the state’s gun laws, which are some of the weakest in the country, have repeatedly come up short. Strong Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature this year once again failed to pass widely popular gun control measures, including universal background checks.

Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has opposed proposals like limits to high-capacity magazines, while most of Maine’s congressional delegation continues to balk at supporting an assault weapons ban.

Maine has about 20 gun homicides annually, but increasing numbers of suicides have driven up the rate of gun deaths in recent years, from 7.8 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2005 to 12.6 in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And police and prosecutors have noted the increasing presence of guns at crime scenes since the onset of the pandemic. Sartoris warns more violence is likely.

“Part of the Maine tradition of hunting is around guns,” Sartoris said. “Well, these are not guns that are being used for hunting anything but people.”

LOOPHOLES

To pro-gun rights advocates, Eaton’s shooting sprees are a prime example of the folly of gun control measures. If laws actually did anything to prevent dangerous people from getting their hands on weapons, they say, then the state and federal statutes barring felons from possessing firearms should have stopped Eaton. Instead, he easily got hold of his mother’s pistol and eight more unsecured guns he found in the Bowdoin home of his family friends, according to court documents.

Justin Davis, the state director of the National Rifle Association, said expanding gun control measures is unnecessary and would unfairly burden law-abiding gun owners. The state could more effectively prevent shootings, he said, by imposing longer sentences on people convicted of violent crimes so they are not free to reoffend.

“Enforce the laws already on our books, equip law enforcement with the resources they need, and ensure that criminals face justice,” Davis said in an email. “The true adversaries are criminals exploiting these lax policies, not responsible gun owners.”

But enforcing existing gun laws is easier said than done.

Margaret Groban, a faculty member at the Maine School of Law and a former prosecutor, conceded that no law could keep a felon from stealing a weapon. But she said loopholes in Maine’s gun laws would have made it easy for Eaton to get a gun without resorting to theft or the black market.

Buying a gun from a licensed dealer requires a background check in Maine, but there’s no such requirement in a private sale. While private sellers are still technically liable if they sell to barred buyers, nothing would stop such a sale from going through unless the seller voluntarily chose to go to a licensed dealer and request a background check on the buyer.

Joseph Eaton walks into a courtroom at West Bath District Court for his arraignment in July. Eaton has confessed to killing four people in Bowdoin in April using stolen guns. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Eaton case prompted numerous gun proposals in the Maine Legislature last session. But a bill that would have required background checks for private sales passed in the House and then failed to make it through the Senate.

Online marketplaces like Uncle Henry’s make it easy to find individuals looking to sell or swap guns. As of Aug. 24, the website listed nearly 200 shotguns, handguns and rifles available within 25 miles of Bowdoin. It’s also legal in Maine for someone to loan a firearm to a friend, for an indefinite period of time, with no background check.

It’s highly unlikely police will ever find out that a prohibited person bought a gun in a private sale, Groban said, unless a third party reports it – or the buyer uses it to commit a crime.

“The authorities don’t know everyone who’s prohibited,” she said. “They don’t walk around with a sign on their head saying, ‘I’m a prohibited person.’”

Convicted felons also can easily get around firearm restrictions by going online to purchase parts for ghost guns – which don’t have serial numbers – said Sartoris, the district attorney. While some states have restricted the practice, it’s legal and easy to buy metal or polymer gun forms known as frames or receivers, which are advertised as being 80% finished. In a matter of minutes, buyers can add other legally purchased parts to construct fully functioning, untraceable guns.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has attempted to create a new rule to require frames to have serial numbers and buyers to get background checks. But a Texas judge vacated the rule – and even though the Supreme Court last month ruled the ATF can temporarily implement its new policy while the litigation moves through the court system, some ghost gun manufacturers are continuing to advertise and sell their untraceable products.

Because no federal or state database tracks gun ownership and federal funds for gun research have been limited for years, it’s impossible to know exactly how many firearms there are in Maine, said Kelly Drane, research director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit focused on promoting gun safety.

A 2020 study by the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank, estimated that 45% of Maine households owned at least one gun between 2007 and 2016, well above the national average of 32%. Combined with other data from the 2015 National Firearm Survey that suggests the average firearm owner in the U.S. has just under five weapons, that figure suggests there could be well over a million guns in the state – perhaps one for each of its nearly 1.4 million residents.

The sheer number of guns in Maine means it is difficult to keep weapons out of the hands of anyone committed to getting one, particularly when firearm ownership is so normalized that people are often comfortable keeping unsecured weapons around prohibited friends and family members, Groban said.

But she said legislators should still work to close loopholes by instituting such policies as universal background checks and waiting periods.

“It’s true that criminals will get guns,” she said. “But can’t we make it more difficult? If they have to go through four steps instead of one to get a gun, doesn’t that make us safer?”

RED FLAGS

Marcel LaGrange’s court records indicate that he displayed violent and unstable tendencies long before he was charged with murder in the fatal shootings of two people in a Westbrook parking lot in June.

After he lost his job at Goodwill for shoplifting in 2018, a corrections officer said, the teenager told staff at Long Creek Youth Correctional Center that he wanted “revenge” on his former co-workers.

“I just can’t wait to see the look on their faces when they see a bunch of (expletive) kids die and a bunch of other innocent people,” he said, according to court records. “People that weren’t even involved will get killed.”

Marcel LaGrange Jr. appears at Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland via Zoom in June. LaGrange is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of Brittney Cockrell and Michael Hayter in Westbrook. Though he had a criminal record, LaGrange was not barred from owning a firearm. Zoom screenshot

LaGrange never carried out his threat but spent the next several years in and out of the justice system. Twice in 2020, court records show, he was asked to leave his home for displaying violent behavior: Once, he tried to set the door of his room on fire after getting into an argument about his dry skin; on another occasion, he assaulted his grandmother while she was driving.

In the year before the Westbrook shooting, he regularly posted selfies of himself with a handgun on Facebook, sometimes accompanied by violent song lyrics.

Maine State Police and the Office of the Maine Attorney General have refused to answer questions about how LaGrange got the gun they believe he used to commit the shootings. But Groban said he was probably able to purchase the weapon legally.

Because prosecutors agreed to drop the felony arson charge against LaGrange if he pleaded guilty to lesser charges for the attempt to set his room on fire, he was not barred from owning a gun, a state police spokesperson confirmed. While certain types of domestic violence convictions can result in gun bans, grandson-on-grandmother assaults probably wouldn’t apply, Groban said.

And so even though LaGrange had bipolar disorder and autism, court records say, and a history of violent threats and actions, LaGrange could legally have passed a background check and bought a weapon from a licensed dealer. 

Could other state laws have prevented him from getting a gun? Groban suggested that Maine’s “yellow flag” law, intended to keep weapons out of the hands of unstable individuals, could have helped if it had been written with more powerful language – language the Legislature considered in 2019 before facing bipartisan opposition.

The law that passed in 2019 allows police to seek a court order to temporarily confiscate firearms and other weapons from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. After a slow ramp-up period, police departments around the state have used the law 67 times through the end of July, including 39 times in 2023, according to recent data from the attorney general’s office.

But even though police are increasingly using the statute, its weaknesses continue to limit its effectiveness, Groban said. In states with stronger “red flag” laws, worried family members or friends can directly petition a court to try to get firearms confiscated. But in Maine, they must first go through police, a step Groban said some people are reluctant to take for fear they will get loved ones in trouble.

Maine Legislature

Several efforts to both strengthen gun control laws and gun rights failed in the Maine Legislature this year. Only a few gun-related bills passed, including a law that makes it a crime to sell or transfer a gun to a prohibited person, which is already illegal under federal statute. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

And while a 24/7 mental health hotline has made it easier for police to get the psychiatric evaluations Maine’s yellow flag law requires before firearms can be confiscated, the process can still be time-consuming and onerous, especially for short-staffed departments. While some departments, including the state police, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Lewiston police, have used the law several times, others haven’t used it at all. Through the end of July, Portland and Bangor had yet to use it. South Portland had used it once.

Would someone in LaGrange’s life have been more likely to sound the alarm if Maine’s Legislature had passed a law that did not require notifying police? Some research has shown that red flag laws can reduce gun violence – particularly suicides, which account for more than 85% of Maine’s gun deaths, according to Department of Health and Human Services data.

But Warren Eller, a researcher and associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said red flag laws are designed to keep guns away from people who are temporarily dangerous because of mental health episodes or other factors, not people with longstanding violent tendencies. While it’s easy in hindsight to say that someone like LaGrange shouldn’t be able to access a firearm, he said, it’s hard to actually strip away gun rights in this country – and thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, that’s unlikely to change.

THE MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGE

The right to bear arms has never been absolute in the United States, which does not allow citizens to own certain types of weapons or carry firearms in some places such as schools. But in 2008, a narrow majority on the Supreme Court overturned a statute in Washington, D.C., that prevented most residents from owning handguns. The case cemented individual gun ownership as a constitutional right, which is difficult to limit due to our legal system and American cultural norms, Eller said.

Nationwide, nearly 90% of gun owners and non-gun owners say they favor placing limits on the rights of people with mental illnesses to buy firearms, according to 2021 data from the Pew Research Center. But according to Eller, actually addressing the role of mental health in gun violence would require giving up some privacy rights – a sacrifice that few are willing to make.

Most people diagnosed with mental illnesses never commit violent crimes, Eller said. So efforts to strip them of their gun rights before they commit serious crimes are both legally precarious and unappetizing to politicians. Because so many people consider gun ownership a core part of American culture, limiting gun rights for people with mental illnesses also can further stigmatize an already marginalized group, he said.

And while law enforcement agencies have the technology to closely monitor people for signs that they might be dangerous to themselves or others, he said, Americans generally aren’t comfortable handing over their privacy rights to police.

“There’s a ton of surveillance that we could be doing – that we do for international-type law enforcement,” Eller said. “We just don’t use those kinds of tools against American citizens.”

Other states have tried to close loopholes by enacting measures such as red flag laws, universal background checks and mandatory waiting periods. Eller said there is limited data about how well those tools work, but he said some states, including New York, have seen promising reductions in gun crime by focusing on slowing the flow of illicit firearms into the state.

The Maine State House in Augusta in March. The House advanced several gun control bills this year, including one to require universal background checks, but those bills later failed in the Senate. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Laws that require buyers to obtain a license or permit to own a firearm have been particularly effective, said Drane, of the Giffords Law Center. She pointed to a 2020 study that compared Connecticut, which enacted its licensing law in 1995, to Missouri, which in 2007 repealed a similar law. Researchers found the combination of permitting requirements and universal background checks resulted in a nearly 28% decrease in gun homicides in Connecticut, while the removal of Missouri’s law led to spikes in gun homicides (47%) and suicides (23.5%).

In general, Drane said, states with stronger gun laws have lower rates of gun violence. Those states tend to lean Democratic – 12 of the 13 states with the highest rates of gun death voted for Donald Trump in 2020, while the nine states with the fewest gun deaths went to Joe Biden.

But while powerful Democratic majorities in both chambers of the State House pushed through other progressive reforms expanding abortion rights, access to gender-affirming care and paid family leave last session, gun reform stalled once again.

A SLOW ROAD

Judiciary Committee co-chair Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, says she will continue to sponsor gun control bills in the state Legislature. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Just one gun safety law made it to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk for her signature this year: L.D. 22 makes it a state crime to transfer or sell a firearm to a prohibited person. But like the corresponding federal law that was already in place, the new Maine law does not mandate the background checks that would alert police if a prohibited person procured a weapon through a private sale or swap.

Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cumberland, who sponsored the legislation, said the new law would improve local law enforcement’s ability to enforce bans and could set the stage for more reform.

“Every piece of legislation that becomes law does some real good,” she said. “It helps build a framework for even more protective legislation.”

But for now, more protective legislation remains elusive.

Another bill, L.D. 168, which would have implemented universal background checks except for sales between family members, drew support at an April public hearing from multiple pediatricians, educators, parents and some law enforcement

“This bill and others like it may not be a panacea, but it will likely keep at least some people from acquiring a firearm who should not have one,” Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce wrote in his testimony supporting the bill. “I will always defend the constitutional rights of good people and good citizens to own firearms, but I cannot in good conscience defend why we aren’t more careful on who we allow to have guns.”

Survey data from the Maine Gun Safety Coalition suggests 70% of Mainers support closing the private sale loophole. Yet about half of the more than 80 people who submitted testimony to the public hearing on L.D. 168 said they opposed the measure. They cited several reasons: the perceived inability of gun laws to stop criminals from getting weapons, concerns that the measure would lead to more gun restrictions, and Maine’s low homicide rate.

The bill narrowly passed the House but died in the Senate after a 21-13 vote in which nine Democrats joined a unified Republican contingent opposing it.

Though few people are killed by others with guns or any other weapons in Maine, suicide remains one of the leading causes of death for older teenagers and adults. According to DHHS data, more than half of the 277 Mainers who died by their own hand in 2021 used a firearm.

Mandatory waiting periods could significantly cut that number by keeping “uniquely deadly” weapons out of the hands of distressed people who are are temporarily suicidal, said Drane, the researcher from Giffords.

Though there’s a common misconception that people who are suicidal will always find a way to follow through with their plans, a prominent 2002 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that around 90% of people who survive a suicide attempt don’t go on to die by suicide – and surviving an attempt is far more likely when guns are not involved, Drane said.

But an effort to institute a 72-hour waiting period failed to get through either chamber of the Legislature.

Several other bills introduced this session would have strengthened gun ownership rights, including one proposal that would have made it legal to fire guns in self-defense near schools. Only one bill expanding gun rights became law: a statute that makes it legal under state law for cannabis users to possess guns. (Federal law still prohibits this).

Despite the defeats, Carney said she remains hopeful that lawmakers are getting closer to passing stronger gun reform measures.

“You kind of have to be an optimist to be in the Legislature,” she said. “I do feel that we’re making progress.”

But Sartoris warned that the state remains vulnerable despite its low homicide rate. The ease of gun purchase here also has effects elsewhere. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives has designated Maine as a “source state” because so many guns purchased here end up at crime scenes in states with stricter gun laws. Often these guns are exchanged for drugs, which contributes to the state’s fentanyl crisis, Sartoris said.

And while Maine has so far mostly avoided high-profile mass shootings, that likely comes down to luck, Sartoris and Drane both said. Until Maine makes it more difficult for prohibited people, teenagers and those who are mentally ill to get guns, that luck could change at any time.

“I think it’s just a matter of time before a kid with access to firearms embarks on a school shooting,” Sartoris said. “There is nothing in Maine law that does the job we need of protecting us.”


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