The mass shooting in Lewiston on Wednesday that claimed the lives of 18 people is drawing attention to Maine’s weak gun laws, with advocates and lawmakers arguing for firearm safety measures to prevent another tragedy.
Many of Maine’s political leaders have a complicated history on the issue, though, often opposing large-scale reforms and working with gun groups to reduce the scope of proposed legislation.
Rep. Golden’s change of heart
After the shooting this week, there are signals that such opposition may be shifting, though. At a press conference Thursday night, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who represents Maine’s more conservative 2nd Congressional District, announced his support for an assault weapons ban and said he had erred by opposing the policy in the past.
“The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the United States Congress to ban assault rifles like the one used by the sick perpetrator of this mass killing,” said Golden, who lives in Lewiston.
It was a significant shift for a Democrat who faces one of the most challenging reelection fights in the country and who had previously voted against several bills to enhance background checks and other gun safety measures while also receiving the highest grade from the NRA of any member of his party in Congress during the 2022 election cycle.
Golden was joined in his call for banning assault weapons by 1st Congressional District Rep. Chellie Pingree, who has long supported stronger gun laws.
“I’ve always believed there was no good reason to own a military style assault weapon,” Pingree said. “That’s not what people take hunting.”
Maine’s senators reject assault weapons ban
Not all of Maine’s congressional delegation is on board with that idea, however. After being asked if she supports an assault weapons ban, Republican Sen. Susan Collins said Thursday that it’s “more important” to ban “very high capacity” magazines and also said she would consider a measure to raise the age for being eligible to buy a high capacity weapon from 18 to 21.
Over the course of her long career in the U.S. Senate, Collins has received nearly $20,000 from the NRA, according to Open Secrets. And while she voted for a bipartisan gun reform measure passed in 2022, Collins has cast a series of votes against firearm safety bills.
For example, the senator in 2013 rejected measures to ban assault weapons and curb access to high capacity magazines. She also backed a bill to let loaded guns be carried in state parks and supported legislation to allow the concealed carry of firearms across state lines.
Those stances drew the ire of some on social media, with people pointing to those votes after Collins released a statement of sympathy following the Lewiston shooting.
The senator’s stance hasn’t changed after Wednesday’s shooting, with a King spokesperson saying the independent is still skeptical of the idea. However, the spokesperson said King wants to remove dangerous guns from the streets and is working on a bill meant to do just that.
Adding another aspect to their gun record, just hours before Wednesday’s shooting, both King and Collins voted in support of an amendment approved by the Senate to make it easier for veterans with mental health issues to get and keep guns. The suspect in the Lewiston shooting, Robert Card of Bowdoin, is reportedly an Army reservist whose family has said he has a history of mental health issues.
King has supported some gun safety measures in the past, including banning high capacity magazines. And he reiterated support for that policy after Wednesday’s shooting, saying such magazines are “what enables a shooter in a case like this to just keep on shooting.” He also backs risk protection orders, which can take the form of “yellow” or “red” flag laws, as well as universal background checks for firearm purchases.
Still, King has a cordial relationship with Sportsman Alliance of Maine (SAM), a group that has bragged about opposing hundreds of gun safety measures. In 2018, during his last reelection campaign, SAM gave King a B grade and declined to endorse the senator’s Republican opponent, Eric Brakey, although the group didn’t back King either.
State leaders have been skeptical of large-scale gun reforms
In Maine — where there is a high rate of gun ownership relative to many other states — local Democrats have often been more conservative than the overall national party on firearm safety reforms, particularly after a ballot measure to require background checks narrowly failed in 2016.
One example is the effort in 2019 to pass a “red flag” law, which would have allowed law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from people considered dangerous. However, Gov. Janet Mills worked with SAM to narrow the legislation into a “yellow flag” bill that was signed into law. The weaker measure means an investigation must be instigated by police, as opposed to family or friends, and requires a mental health evaluation from a medical professional before a judge can be petitioned to confiscate someone’s firearms.
Overall, Mills, a Democrat, has a varied history on the issue of guns. As a state lawmaker in the 2000s, she garnered either an A+ or A grade from the National Rifle Association. However, when running for governor in 2018, Mills called for a litany of gun policy reforms, including an assault weapons ban and a prohibition on high-capacity magazines. Mills’ grade from the NRA subsequently sunk to an F.
But as Maine’s top official, Mills — who got a C from the NRA in the lead up to the 2022 election — hasn’t quite governed as she said she would in her initial campaign. The governor has not pushed to ban assault weapons and came out against expanding background checks for gun purchases. Before the 2022 election, Mills received a grade of A from SAM, with the group noting that she had worked with them to “defeat all the gun bills we viewed as negative.”
Mills’ office did not respond to a request for comment about whether she would push for stiffer regulations that some Democratic legislative members have called for following the shooting.
The governor’s skepticism about more far-reaching gun safety measures has been shared by some legislative Democrats, particularly in the state Senate.
Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook), a progressive on many issues, has voted against a number of reforms, including a bill earlier this year to institute a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases, a measure to ban rapid-fire modification devices, and legislation to institute a background check policy in Maine — all of which ultimately failed. Jackson has also received high marks from SAM, getting an A+ from the group in 2022.
In response to a question about whether Jackson would support stricter gun laws following Wednesday’s mass shooting, a spokesperson said the Senate president is focused on supporting Lewiston Sen. Peggy Rotundo (D-Androscoggin) and the greater community.
“As her community works to identify the neighbors whose lives were lost, we are following [Rotundo’s] lead,” spokesperson Christine Kirby said. “I’m sure there will be an opportunity for further conversations in the coming days when we have more substantive information and better understand how to move forward.”
Along with Jackson, Senate Republicans as a bloc opposed state-level gun reforms proposed earlier this year. But many fellow Senate Democrats, who hold a majority, also helped sink the bills.
Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli of Sagadahoc County along with Sens. Joe Baldacci of Penobscot County, Chip Curry of Waldo County, Henry Ingwersen of York County, Joe Rafferty of York County, David LaFountain of Kennebec County, Tim Nangle of Cumberland County, Cameron Reny of Lincoln County, Mike Tipping of Penobscot County, Nicole Grohoski of Hancock County, and Craig Hickman of Kennebec County each opposed one or all of those proposed gun reforms.