In 2016, Maine voters rejected a citizen-initiated referendum to require background checks before people buy guns in private sales – just like the checks conducted by licensed dealers.
The outcome shaped Gov. Janet Mills’ thinking on the issue, she said during her State of the State address Tuesday night. During her reelection campaign in 2022, Mills was regarded as a strong ally of gun owners in part for opposing universal background checks.
But then a gunman opened fire and killed 18 people at two locations in Lewiston in October.
“In the aftermath of the violence we have seen across Maine, I have asked myself whether this approach is still right,” Mills said Tuesday night.
She went on to unveil a proposal for new gun safety measures, including background checks for private sales that are advertised, as well as a new felony for people who sell firearms to those who are prohibited from having them.
The background check proposal marks a significant shift for Mills, although the governor stopped short of calling for other reforms demanded by safety advocates in the wake of the Lewiston shootings. While legislators are expected to debate restrictions on semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, Mills did not mention those measures in her speech.
Mills did not make herself available in response to a request for an interview Wednesday and instead her spokespeople pointed a reporter to comments she made in her speech Tuesday night.
Political observers interviewed Wednesday noted the shift in the governor’s position on gun legislation – even if it’s a measured one. And advocates on both sides of the gun control debate said it could be a good starting place for a compromise.
TRAGEDY CLOSE TO HOME
Mark Brewer, a professor and chair of political science at the University of Maine, said Mills’ shift is not unusual for an elected official after a mass shooting. He pointed to U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s change in position when he declared support for an assault weapons ban immediately after the Lewiston shootings. Golden, D-2nd District, had been a strong opponent of the legislation.
Nor is it unusual for a politician’s stand on a difficult issue to evolve when they are not considering running for office again, he said. Mills cannot seek reelection because of term limits and has said she does not plan to run for any other office.
“When politicians have come to that point, either by their own volition or because of term limits, that often does give them a greater degree of freedom to take policy positions that maybe would have been a little bit harder to take,” Brewer said. “Any time there is this kind of intense tragedy that takes place in an elected official’s backyard, it provides an opportunity for reflection and an opportunity for evolution on this or any issue.”
Nicholas Jacobs, an assistant government professor at Colby College, also sees a shift in Mills’ position. Rather than opposing or watering down proposed gun bills, Mills is instead providing leadership on a possible compromise, Jacobs said.
“It’s certainly not a dramatic change of heart,” he said, comparing it with Golden’s surprising turnaround on assault weapons. “That would be very atypical of Mills.”
Jacobs agrees that Mills has more freedom to step out in front of this issue because she’s prevented from running for reelection. He described her evolution and the background check proposal as “an act of genuine leadership to show up and change, however small as it may appear.”
Mills has a history of taking relatively moderate positions on gun-related issues. During her 2018 bid for governor, she received an F rating from the National Rifle Association while the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine gave her an A-minus. Similar to the NRA at the national level, SAM is an influential voice for gun access rights in Maine.
The NRA did not specify at the time what Mills did to earn an F while SAM said at the time that Mills had stated “unequivocally” in an interview with its board that she would not seek a ban on assault-style, semiautomatic weapons in Maine, nor would she work to put limits on large-capacity magazines.
Mills received an A from SAM in 2022. The alliance noted that she did not support any “extreme, controversial gun control bills” and indicated she would oppose a range of gun restrictions, including requiring a license to purchase ammunition, raising the age to purchase ammo from 18 to 21, requiring background checks for private gun sales and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Her change in thinking on background checks isn’t the only time the governor has changed policy positions in her second term. Last year, after saying on the campaign trail that she had no plans to change abortion law, Mills proposed a bill that ultimately passed to expand abortion access later in pregnancy.
In her speech Tuesday, the governor said she sees her firearms proposal as the type of “commonsense measures” she has worked with lawmakers and others to enact during her time in office.
Examples she said include laws that allow judges to remove weapons from people under domestic violence orders, laws to ensure that survivors of domestic violence are notified if their abuser tries to obtain a firearm, penalties for straw purchases of firearms, incentives for the safe storage of firearms, funding for the Maine School Safety Center to help make schools safe and the yellow flag law that took effect in 2020, which sets up a process for police to take away the guns of people experiencing a mental health crisis.
She tied her new proposal to the Lewiston shootings, as well as a shooting in Bowdoin in April that killed four people.
“Over the past several months, I have been to too many funerals … I have sat with myself – and my own conscience – reflecting upon what is right for Maine in the wake of Lewiston, of (Bowdoin), and of the tragedies of suicide and domestic violence that are all too prevalent in our society,” she said.
‘A PLACE TO BEGIN’
David Trahan, SAM’s executive director, said Mills’ shift on background checks isn’t especially surprising given the magnitude of the mass shooting.
“That’s a game changer and we all knew that,” Trahan said. “The gun rights community understands that that’s a game changer and that what we had seen on the national news had come to Maine. … The reality is 18 people died, and we have to figure out a way to make our communities safer.”
Trahan would not weigh in Wednesday on whether his group will oppose the governor’s expanded background check measure, saying he wants to see the legislation behind the proposal, which has yet to be finalized, and discuss it with his board.
“I think she’s tried to thread the needle, and I appreciate her very careful approach to it,” he said. “She’s not buying into what’s happening in other parts of the country where out-of-state groups are dictating policy.”
The Maine Gun Safety Coalition, which has advocated for further gun control legislation, including universal background checks, a 72-hour waiting period on firearm purchases and a ban on assault-style weapons, said the governor’s proposal “is a place to begin.”
“We would have liked to see her proposal go further and include other elements,” said David Farmer, a spokesperson for the coalition. “But we recognize the governor has moved (in her position) and we are anxious to work with her and members of the Legislature to pass better and stronger gun safety reforms.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.