In Lewiston, Maine, it is the silence you notice first. Street after street emptied of people and traffic. Shops, cafes, garages all closed for business. Residents were instructed to shelter in place as the manhunt continued for the suspect in Wednesday’s mass shooting.
Robert Card, who is still on the run, is a veteran, a weapons instructor and a man who suffered mental illness. His rampage of violence was the worst America has experienced this year, leaving 18 dead and eight seriously injured. He targeted people in a bowling alley and a busy bar. All apparently shot randomly as he encountered them.
But while this story is tragic and upsetting, it is far from unusual in this country. According to the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) there have been 565 mass shootings in 43 states this year alone. You can argue about the methodology for those figures and what constitutes a mass shooting, but you can’t argue with the trend. However you define them, mass shootings are becoming more common. The GVA says in 2014 there were 272. By 2020, that figure had risen to 610. 2023 looks on course to exceed possibly 700 mass shootings.
The Democrat Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, this week witheringly rounded on Republican politicians in Maine for failing to pass the most modest of gun law reforms. He pointed out Republicans opposed a law which would have required a short waiting period to buy firearms of just 72 hours. “We need immediate action – we cannot sit around and wait for Congress,” he posted on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.
But the depressing reality is that Congress will not act. The Republican Party is heavily influenced by the gun lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA). It has stifled any meaningful discussion of an assault rifle ban. In March, President Biden conceded he was powerless to overcome Republican intransigence in Congress, saying: “I have gone the full extent of my executive authority to do, on my own, anything about guns.”
In fact, America did once manage to get an assault weapon ban passed, which remained in place from 1994 to 2004. That was in part thanks to the then senator Joe Biden’s support. But the ban lapsed and AR-15s became a potent political symbol of the right, bound up with a notion of individual freedom and overbearing government.
Over the years, the Republican Party has become more entrenched and today there is almost no discussion of the issue, even in the wake of hideous events like those which have played out in Lewiston.
The NRA’s power isn’t as great as it once was. Its membership has fallen 40 per cent in recent years. But it still has tens of millions of dollars to spend on lobbying and helping pro-gun candidates get elected.
The NRA argues the way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have more good guys with guns. The problem, illustrated this week, is that Robert Card was a good guy; until he wasn’t. He was a military veteran, a weapons instructor, respected by his peers and trusted by the army. But then he suffered from a severe mental health episode which hospitalised him for two weeks. After he was discharged he was able to obtain an AR-15 and kill 18 people.
It is easy to get a gun in Maine. You don’t need a permit to carry a weapon in public here. There’s no need to perform any background checks when purchasing a firearm either. Maine does restrict the possession of guns by people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. But unlike the 20 or so states which have passed a so-called red flag law, allowing the police to seize guns from people deemed by a judge to be a threat to themselves or others, four years ago Maine passed a so called “yellow flag” law. This means a medical professional is first required to agree a person should be denied their Second Amendment Right to bear arms. Then and only then can the police petition a judge to seize their weapons.
Until this week, Maine was held up as an example of a state with permissive gun laws and little violent crime. Now that reputation has been shredded and the state which was staunchly protective of gun rights, with its history of hunting, will have to consider whether it should go further.
But while Maine may make some changes, the prospects of a federal assault weapon ban are vanishingly distant. And so the mass shootings across this vast country will continue, and so too will the hand wringing by politicians who appear powerless to stop it.
Dan Rivers is US correspondent for ITV News